Concert Reviews

Beethoven: Missa solemnis

Thu, Jan 20, 2011 | 8:00 PM
Sat, Jan 22, 2011 | 8:00 PM
A defining work glows anew! Only Beethoven could have written Missa solemnis, a piece carved from Mount Olympus itself. His “Solemn Mass” radiates grace, force, and humanity and is further illumined by the majestic power of the Chorus.

Classical Music

Atlanta Symphony review: Runnicles leads a gripping, helter-skelter “Missa Solemnis”

by Pierre Ruhe | Jan 21, 2011

Why we’re lucky to live in Atlanta: when conductor Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus program Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” they deliver at such an exalted level you can’t imagine it being done better anywhere.

Thanks to Robert Shaw, who revered the work and conducted it often, the “Missa Solemnis” is imprinted on the ASO’s collective consciousness. Originally planned to commemorate his friend and patron’s elevation to archbishop, Beethoven’s score follows the Mass Ordinary in structure but grew into a super-sized offering to humanity, an emotionally and philosophically contradictory work that seems to ask provocative questions yet provides no answers. The composer, by the way, had been deaf for 15 years.

The ASO returned to the “Missa” Thursday night in an exalted performance. It will be repeated Saturday in Symphony Hall.

By the short recapitulation in the opening “Kyrie” section, just a few minutes into the evening, Runnicles’ deliberate pacing and unflinching concentration made it feel like our journey had already taken us over the horizon of the known world — our land, our homes, were no longer visible. We were out in open ocean, an exhilarating and scary feeling. (Photos by Jeff Roffman.)

The band was tight. The ASO played on fire in the Gloria section, agile and at full fury, while Norman Mackenzie’s 200-voice chorus sang with crisp diction and firm, almost teardrop-shaped tones. It’s eerie to hear that many people sing that cleanly, that warmly, that loudly.

But the chorus, enamored with its own power, often threatens to overshadow a performance, which can be an awesome spectacle but not always the most convincing interpretation. Conductors are not always successful in balancing the forces on stage. To Runnicles’ credit — and Mackenzie’s — the chorus was almost ideally calibrated Thursday night.

The deluxe vocal quartet blended exquisitely, despite sounding like three Wagnerians and an Evangelist. American soprano Christine Brewer and Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill vocalized as if two sides of the same voice. Brewer’s silken soprano had a plush darkness, while Cargill’s lower ranged had a thick, veiled lower range but a brighter, soprano-ish top. Eric Owens’ gritty, oaken, textured bass-baritone was equally charismatic and able to cut through Symphony Hall’s miserable acoustic.

But where the other three had the Wagnerian vocal heft to sing over the orchestra in the most heated moments, tenor Thomas Cooley, a noted Bach interpreter, was smaller and more “churchy” in voice. In exposed moments, he nevertheless sang with radiant, tender elegance.

Runnicles was the star of it all. He never shied away from the helter-skelter detours that seem a part of some alternate narrative, a storyline that’s not part of the Latin texts and the rites of the church. The Mass can seem closer in spirit to the Beatles’ White Album than to the respectful tradition codified by Haydn and Mozart. One key passage is a lucid hallucination built off the line “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” — “And I wait for the resurrection of the dead.” Aspiring rock musicians and hip-hop producers looking to shake up the world and dis their elders might consider studying this passage. It’s an extreme example of Beethoven’s radical creativity. But then moments later, closing the “Credo” section, the quartet’s “Amen” was imperishably beautiful, suspended in air.

Concertmaster David Coucheron, new to the ASO this season, got out of his chair for his extended solo meditation off the “Praeludium.” His lyrical phrasing with the four singers is now burn into memory as one of the highlights of the season. With his fluid virtuosity, his honeyed tone and heart-felt expression, he sets a high standard for the other string principals to follow. (Indeed, the discrepancy between Coucheron’s playing and, say, that of principal violist Reid Harris — who performed his own solo last week, weakly — is so glaring it’s now impossible to ignore.)

Runnicles’ unified, romanticized account lasted 81 minutes by my watch, a full 10 minutes longer than a favorite on CD, a period-instrument version conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. But the ASO’s traversal was utterly gripping throughout. At the end, the performers received a sincere standing ovation and multiple curtain calls … but without the lusty, red-meat cheers that an equally superb performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would have elicited. As Runnicles says, the “‘Missa solemnis’ holds up a mirror to us. It leaves an inconclusive feeling at the end.”

Classical Music

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” and the power of myth come to Symphony Hall

by Pierre Ruhe | Jan 19, 2011

What is Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” about? No one, including the musicians at this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance, seems to know for sure.

The CD cover for Brewer's, Owens', Runnicles' and the ASO's latest, on Telarc.

Many Beethoven fans consider this “Solemn Mass” among the greatest works in the entire repertoire, one of the most searching, bewildering and profound pieces to come from the imagination of any composer. After a decade’s absence from Symphony Hall, the ASO and Chorus will return to it Thursday and Saturday, conducted by Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles. The quartet of vocal soloists is starry: soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Karen Cargill, tenor Thomas Cooley and bass-baritone Eric Owens.

At a surface level, the 70-minute Mass, sung in Latin, is a traditional statement of Christian faith — albeit by a man of unconventional piety, a cranky freethinker whose belief in God didn’t correspond to the sanctity of the Catholic Church. Unlike Masses by Schubert, his contemporary, or earlier ones by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s vision of the spiritual world is more than just personal; it is, well, strange, in the way that only late Beethoven — stone deaf for the past 15 years — can get away with. The musical vocabulary is familiar one moment, then suddenly flips psychedelic, with chaos battling order, with unusual climactic points, unexpected musical emphases and demands on the singers and instrumentalists that remain difficult to this day. As Kurt Pahlen, a German choral scholar, describes it, “It is as if Beethoven prays in another language, using a different vocabulary, yet everything is exactly as prescribed.”

Then there’s that other story buried within the “Missa Solemnis” — the one that in no way corresponds to the text.

“For all its glory and might, it doesn’t have to make sense,” says Runnicles. “There’s a spiritual bond between the ‘Missa Solemnis’ and the Ninth Symphony. He worked on them at the same time, and the ‘Missa Solemnis’ throws out questions that are answered only at the end, in the ‘Ode to Joy,’ of the Ninth Symphony.”

Runnicles points out perhaps the most inexplicable moment in the whole work: “The arrival of trumpets and drums in the Angus Dei [the final movement] is very uncomfortable, it’s an intrusion — like a violent man entering the room, as it were — and the quiet prayers for peace from the chorus become desperate shouts for peace, for civility, for a return to normal.”

Is the conductor making a connection between a great classic and current events involving a deranged man and a cyclone of political implications? “I’d say it’s like the power of myth; the myths are always relevant,” he says. “There’s a futility to it; we keep making the same mistakes and it never ends. Beethoven is grappling with the fact that we’re fallible, in the early 19th century and in the early 21st. The senseless nature of what it describes doesn’t come from the text, but the ‘Missa Solemnis’ holds a mirror up to us. It leaves an inconclusive feeling at the end.”

ASO contrabassoonist Juan de Gomar's picture of his tongue-twisting "Missa Solemnis" part, shared on Facebook.

Perhaps for this reason, Berkeley musicologist Joseph Kerman has suggested that, “Generally respected, one senses, rather than loved, the ‘Missa Solemnis’ has found relatively few performances over the years, and has certainly not been a text for critical exegesis.”

Don’t say that in Atlanta.

The ASO and Chorus have recorded it under Robert Shaw, and this week’s performances will use an annotated score and orchestral parts that Shaw created in the 1990s.

It’s the sort of smashingly great chorus-and-orchestra work that Runnicles could — might? — perform the next time the ASO Chorus and Berlin Philharmonic get together.

“Conductors are terrified of it,” says 40-year-old bass-baritone Owens, an ASO regular who has sung General Groves in “Doctor Atomic” and was astonishingly effective as Albrecht (photo below) this season in Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.

“Like the ‘St. Matthew’ Passion, the ‘Missa Solemnis’ is unbelievably rewarding, but it’s much more forward looking,” Owens says. “Beethoven leads you down a path, you’re going along just fine, then suddenly he takes a harmonic or a rhythmic turn that you never get used to singing. He obliterates bar lines, and when you think you know when to make an entrance, like it’s supposed to be on a strong downbeat, you’ll likely be wrong. You have to watch the conductor very closely, and even then you’re always surprised at the twists and turns in the music.”

Janacek: Glagolitic Mass

Twyla Robinson, Soprano

ASO Chorus

Thu, Oct 21, 2010 | 8:00 PM
Sat, Oct 23, 2010 | 8:00 PM

A spellbinding evening begins with Ligeti’s wondrous Atmosphères, a work that gained wide public attention when heard on the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. The Bartók is a bristling account of robbery, seduction, sexual longing, and murder, and the mighty Chorus blazes forth in Janácek’s epic Glagolitic Mass.

Concert review: White-hot Atlanta Symphony & Chorus ready for Carnegie Hall

by Pierre Ruhe | Oct 22, 2010

Even if the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was not preparing this weekend’s program for Carnegie Hall, last night’s concert in Symphony Hall would have felt like one of the major events of the city’s classical season.

The ASO and Chorus performed an energized and extroverted program that involved some of the most interesting music heard in a long while. During the “Credo” movement of Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass,” I thought I was hearing the most wildly creative piece of music in the world.

The concert was crafted to fit Carnegie’s Great American Orchestras subscription series as well as the limitations of the Carnegie stage, which is smaller than Symphony Hall’s. (In Atlanta, 185 choristers sing the Janáček; only 170 will perform it in New York.) Likewise, the concert’s opening work was switched earlier this week — no one had realized, according to the official statement from the ASO, that the choral risers on the Carnegie stage wouldn’t leave enough room for the huge orchestra required for György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères.” (Concert photos by Jeff Roffman.)

So conductor Robert Spano opted for Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (translated as “Brethren”). It was written in the Estonian composer’s miraculous year of 1977, when he found a mature style he calls “tintinnambuli,” evoking the tolling of bells, a spellbinding soundworld both medieval and modern.

Like Bach’s “Art of Fugue,” the instrumentation of “Fratres” isn’t specific. The ASO performed a 1991 version for string orchestra and percussion. The music is so deceptively “minimal” that it seems that nothing happens across its 11 minutes. At the start, a dry knock (claves and bass drum, played by Thomas Sherwood) cracks open the silence, and later it adds punctuation between sections. The notes A and E are droned continuously as a subterranean hum. A simple, chant-like melody, played over and over, begins quietly, then builds, then recedes back to silence. That’s the whole work. Yet the sense of ritual, of anguished emotion, of catharsis, is devastatingly effective.

The ASO moved from strength to strength. Bartók’s 1927 suite from his ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” is music right down the center of Spano’s talent: hyper-intense, emotionally nebulous and requiring as much virtuosity from the conductor as from the instrumentalists. They gave it a white-hot performance, controlled, frenzied and with full understanding. The ballet’s story is voyeuristic and perhaps a little sadistic. A band of criminals forces a young girl to dance in a window, as a prostitute. The thugs rob the men she entices. Then a darkly allegorical figure, a Mandarin, appears. We hear it all in the music. Laura Ardan’s clarinet solos, depicting the pitiful girl’s dance, were loaded with sadness and humanity.

After intermission came the “Glagolitic Mass,” performed in Paul Wingfield’s scholarly edition of Janáček’s final, 1928 version of the score. (Spano made the decision to repeat the opening “Intrada” movement at the end, which conforms to the original score from 1927; there is still no ideal version.)

Janáček is a dazzlingly peculiar composer. He found his mature voice late in life, in his 50s and 60s. The Mass was composed for the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence and in commemoration of the ninth-century Slav missionaries who brought Christianity to Moravia, which was Janáček’s native province (now part of the Czech Republic).

Janáček’s music draws strength and moral integrity, in part, by retaining its gritty and modal Moravian character — unlike, say, Dvorak, another Czech composer, who tended to regularize or “Germanize” his native folk sounds. (In this regard, Janáček’s aesthetic is akin to Mussorgsky’s and has been passed down today to Osvaldo Golijov, whose music often incorporates raw street sounds without smoothing it for polite consumption.)

On Thursday, the orchestra and chorus had it all completely digested. The violins sounded silkier than I’ve heard them in a while. Spano caught the off-balance, herky-jerky phrases — the rhythms of Old Church Slavic speech set to music — which are capped by those churning brass flourishes. At the opening of the “Gloria” section, with silvery-voiced soprano Twyla Robinson intoning “Slava vo vysnich Bogu” (“Glory to God in the highest”), the mood was springtime fresh, fragrant and more than a little pantheistic, like the verdant euphoria that starts Janáček’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Totally intoxicating.

There’s a remarkable moment in the “Credo” where the composer’s ideas flow so fast and kick in with such innocent conviction that it feels like a long, wild ride. The tenor sings his beliefs — heldentenor John Mac Master, ringing like a trumpet — then the chorus offers a gentle “Veruju” (“I believe”), both earthy and gossamer, then the cellos sing a theme, picked up by the whole orchestra with a grinding rhythm that builds to — from out of nowhere — a jittery Gothic organ solo, played by Peter Marshall. (Pity about the tinny electronic instrument, since neither Symphony Hall nor Carnegie has a pipe organ.)

The other vocal soloists delivered handsomely. Bass Burak Bilgili had a small part and sang in rich, chocolaty tones. Monica Groop’s mezzo had copper shadings, and she phrased her lines gorgeously.

The stars of the show, as expected, were all grouped at the back of the stage. Prepared to uncompromisingly lofty standards by Norman Mackenzie, the ASO Chorus handled the Old Church Slavonic with ease, each syllable clear, every phrase focused and often delivered as naturally as speech.

There’s one more Atlanta performance of this unmissable show, on Saturday night. For the Carnegie performance October 30, one might bet the “Glagolitic” itself will get the most applause, with the ASO Chorus not far behind.


Classical Music

Carnegie Hall review: Atlanta Symphony and Chorus warm up to deliver searing Janacek Mass

by Susan Elliott | Oct 31, 2010

Editor’s note: Susan Elliott, a former Atlantan, has written many times about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra over the past 15 years, including articles for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times, Symphony magazine and others. She is the editor of and lives in New York. — Pierre

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra kicked off Carnegie Hall’s Great American Orchestras series Saturday night, a group of concerts whose other participants during the 2010-11 season will be the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. It’s safe to say that the ASO, under music director Robert Spano, is keeping rather lofty company these days.

And doing so with distinctive programming. Never mind bringing Beethoven (New York), Wagner (Cleveland), Mozart (Boston) or Berlioz (Chicago) to the country’s most famous concert venue. Spano and the ASO offered an irresistibly colorful 20th-century mix of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” for string orchestra and percussion, Béla Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and Leos Janácek’s “Glagolitic Mass.” These are ballsy choices, because challenging repertoire and boffo box-office sales do not great partners make. Indeed, between the World Series and Halloween Eve, it’s a wonder that the hall was as filled as it was — about two-thirds of the 2,800 seats were occupied. What the audience lacked in numbers, however, it made up for in volume of approval, especially for the “Glagolitic Mass” (and especially from the audience-right first tier, where the bulk of the home team’s fans apparently had congregated). (Photos by Jennifer Taylor.)

Few Western choruses attempt the Mass, largely because of its complex ninth-century Slavonic language. Such are its many musical delights — the motivic exchanges among sections of the orchestra and the chorus, its startling brass fanfares, its almost pre-Minimalist ostinati in the upper strings — that, had Janácek set it in Latin, it would surely be one of the staples of the choral repertoire. On the other hand, it is precisely the distinctive rhythms and guttural urgency of the Old Church Slavonic that the composer has captured so brilliantly in this music.

This score is so jammed with passion, so bordering on the barbaric, that there is virtually no margin for affectation in interpretation. Spano would seem to have inhabited the composer’s psyche Saturday night, so clearly articulated and yet wholly felt was his reading. Sterling brass choirs, translucent strings, jarring percussion — all the ingredients were in place for a performance that seared the memory. Choral director Norman Mackenzie insured that the chorus was beyond reproach in virtually every aspect: whistle-clean diction, precise entrances and cut-offs, spot-on tuning, ethereal pianissimos, earth-shattering fortes. Even their collective standing and sitting was well executed. Small wonder the ASO Chorus is considered one of the finest symphonic choruses in the world. (It recorded the Mass with its founding director, Robert Shaw, in 1991.) Some of New York’s professional choirs have much to learn from this entirely volunteer group.

The four vocal soloists acquitted themselves well, with most of the work falling to Twyla Robinson’s bright, light-voiced soprano. All used abundant vibrato, particularly the sometimes overly ardent tenor John Mac Master; Turkish bass Burak Bilgili’s rich, dark timbre was beautifully suited to the guttural utterings of the text; and Monica Groop held her own in the brief mezzo-soprano passages. The grandeur of Peter Marshall’s “Varhany” organ solo made a listener long to hear him play it on a true concert pipe organ rather than the hall’s electronic instrument, but he still managed to rattle the floor of the auditorium.

At the concert’s opening, it took awhile for the audience to clear its collective throat — not particularly helpful in setting the proper mood for Pärt’s contemplative “Fratres,” which begins at a barely audible dynamic level. The orchestra nonetheless made a respectable showing, a couple of ragged entrances in the second violins notwithstanding. Spano was not able to achieve much of an emotional impact across the work’s 10-minute dynamic build-up and denouement — perhaps an unattainable goal, given its placement on the program and the audience’s initial consumptive disposition.

Robert Spano conducting Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" without baton.


“The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite suffered from a similar malaise for the first 10 or so of its 20 minutes, with some tuning issues in the winds and a lack of textural focus and distinction from one section to another. Spano was a bit too polite to achieve the “horrible pandemonium, din, racket and hooting” the composer calls for in the prelude. The piece is based on a horrid, bloodthirsty tale, but until the final, screaming climactic moments, the ASO failed to tell it with real, from-the-gut conviction.

Perhaps it was saving its energies for the post-intermission Mass, whose closing brought much of the audience to its feet, with Spano, Mackenzie and the soloists coming out for multiple bows. On the applause meter, however, the ASO Chorus won, hands down.

Saturday, June 20, 2009
Opening Night for Summer Season at VZW Amphitheatre! Carmina Burana & Barber of Seville
(ASO Media Center: Classical Summer Opening June 20, 2008) 
(ASO Media Center: Classical Summer Season Opener) 


 ASO and Chorus opens Encore Park with spectacular "Carmina Burana"


Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, in the northern Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, is a very big place. Last year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the venue with a sold-out extravaganza, and it was anyone's guess how many patrons would attend classical concerts at Encore Park on a regular basis.

_MG_9288smSaturday night, conductor Robert Spano, the ASO and its unstoppable Chorus opened the 2009 summer season. The performance of excerpts from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" and Orff's "Carmina Burana" was beyond all expectation, as
 I wrote in an AJC review. Yet just 2,500 people attended, according to ASO figures. While that felt slight for a 12,000-seat pavilion, it's still more than would have fit into the 1,750-seat Symphony Hall. Well, it's a start. As ASO president and CEO Allison Vulgamore told me years ago, in what seems to be a ASO mantra, "We're always growing, but slowly." (Photos by Chris Lee.)