Sunday, May 18, 2008

A "Soulful Performance" of the Missa Solemnis

Why, after a nearly-solid week of rehearsals capped by two performances of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony, am I not exhausted? Last night after our second performance I couldn't get to sleep for hours, and I was awake again at 5:00 this morning. The music doesn't stop, even hours and days after the last note has rung to the back of The Bushnell. In my inner ear is ringing the stunning and transcendent "Et vitam venturi..."

The entire experience — from the initial weeks spent with score study (PV and full scores), background reading (Solomon's revelatory biography, an in-depth formal analysis. and other materials), our excellent rehearsals with Maestro Coffey, and the final rehearsals and performances with Maestro Cumming — has been transformative. It does indeed take months of study, rehearsal, performance, and contemplation to begin to grasp a work of this depth and breadth. The performances are not the end — they are the beginning.

Particularly noteworthy of these two performances was the utterly rapt attention of the audience. There was a real sense of connection in the hall, not just between and among the musicians assembled on the stage, but between musicians and audience. As Beethoven marked in his score of the Missa Solemnis: "From the heart—may it go to the heart!"

Perhaps this review from today's issue of The Hartford Courant will put it into context:

Soulful Performance Of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis At Bushnell
By JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant, May 18, 2008

By imagining the opening Kyrie as a "slow introduction" and the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei that follow as a symphonic conception, conductor Edward Cumming argued during an inspired pre-concert discussion, we could hear Beethoven's Missa Solemnis as a "sacred symphony." He claimed that it "asks vocalists to sing as instruments" within the orchestra, and that the work is universally regarded "as one of the most difficult works in the choral repertoire."

Difficult it is, and perhaps even impossible in its demands on technique and endurance for singers. The Hartford Chorale and CONCORA, prepared by Music Director Richard Coffey, were not intimidated, however, and it became the centerpiece in an uncompromising performance on Friday. They, along with soprano Inna Dukach, mezzo soprano Janine Hawley, tenor Steven Tharp, and bass Kevin Deas, joined the Hartford Symphony in Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center in a program that consisted of only one work: the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven.

It was an amazingly detailed choral performance. The low alto line that opens the Gloria and every word of the quiet bass entry on "et in terra pax" could be clearly heard. The chorus was able to maintain balance in sections in which quiet singing collides with passages sung at top volume. The "in Gloria Dei" fugue from the Gloria had a most attractive dance quality. Attention to articulation helped define rhythmic motives and create a network of associations developed by the orchestra. In this sense, the singers really did feel like an extension of the orchestra.

A professional choir might have been able to round off every high B-flat and create a sound closer to icy perfection, but I would choose to hear The Hartford Chorale and CONCORA anytime. It was as soulful a performance of this work as you are likely to ever hear.

The soloists had effective moments, and brought an operatic quality to the largely ensemble singing required of the soloists. The Agnus Dei benefited most directly from their approach, as dramatic juxtapositions of military music and musical pleadings for peace take on the feel of an operatic scene.

The orchestra excelled, particularly in darker, more reflective moments such as the "Präludium" that precedes the Benedictus. The low G played by organ at the close of that section made it seem as if the whole theater were slowly vibrating.

This event seemed to stun and enrapture the Hartford audience. I cannot recall any concert in which the audience was this quiet — no wrappers, no shifting, no coughing … just silent concentration for a single work that lasted an hour and a half without a significant break. The standing ovation at the close of the performance happened in what seemed to be a single motion.

The print version had this additional paragraph:

"Cumming has consistently demonstrated a special feel for Beethoven. In this work, he made his mark in the opening section of the Kyrie, clearly articulating events that were syncopated. This made the metric game of the opening movement apparent in a way that I have never heard. This is a virtuosity of understanding, and it was a pleasure to hear. Time and time again, intriguing connections within the music were made. It was a performance from which one could learn."

Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant,0,2180290.story

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Hartford Chorale "Friendraiser"

On May 7, I had the privilege and pleasure to be one of several musicians from The Hartford Chorale who entertained friends of The Chorale at a lovely cocktail hour at the home of The Chorale's past-president, Dougla Pyrke. Laura Oliver, The Chorale's VP for Membership, took this great photo that appeared in The Hartford Courant on Saturday, May 10.

Here's The Courant's brief summary (corrected as to spelling, punctuation, etc.!):

HARTFORD CHORALE MUSIC DIRECTOR RICHARD COFFEY, left, is joined by tenor soloist David Grabowski, a senior at Farmington High School and intern with the Chorale, and sopranos and Chorale members Jane Scott and Sarah Johnston at the Farmington home of Dougla Pyrke and Jack Fairchild. Pyrke is past president and current board member of the Hartford Chorale. The singers provided the musical component Wednesday at a Chorale's spring cultivation event held twice annually to thank Chorale donors. Johnston, Scott and Grabowski performed works by Handel, Vivaldi, Copland and Carnelia. The Chorale performs the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with The Hartford Symphony next next week at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. For details, visit (PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURA OLIVER / May 9, 2008),0,2655152.photogallery

Jane and I sang two duets with Rick at the pianoforte. Our first selection was George Frideric Handel's duet for two sopranos and continuo, Quel fior che all'alba ride. In the summer of 1741, George Frederic Handel amused himself by composing several “madrigal duets,” sprightly settings of Italian love poems. The one we sang, Quel fior che all'alba ride, is fashioned in three short movements in the fast-slow-fast style typical of instrumental sonatas and concerti, and this little gem is indeed like a small concerto for two soprano voices and continuo.

This seemed like a good selection for this event, as some months after he composed the duet, Handel used its music as the basis for two choruses in Messiah ("And he shall purify" and "His yoke is easy"). Of course, many of those in attendance had sung Messiah with The Chorale, or have enjoyed our performances as members of The Chorale's audience. It was a treat to see surprise and laughter light up their faces as they recognized this familiar music.

Our second selection was the "Laudamus te" from Vivaldi's Gloria. This music, too, is very familiar, of course, but it always feels fresh and exciting. I had a chance to sing the second soprano part for the first time. I always enjoy learning and performing music that is new to me, and it was a pleasure to hear Jane on the first part while I was enjoying the musical aspects of the second part.


Friday, May 9, 2008

The Mighty Missa Solemnis

In a few days, The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra enter "production week" for our performances of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis May 17 and 18 at The Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut. Curtain time for each performance is 8:00 p.m. HSO director Edward Cumming will be on the podium; the Chorale's director Richard Coffey prepared the Chorale.
Production week (also called tech week) can be daunting: we rehearse every night but one, the evenings are very long, and our first few rehearsals this week will be held in a crowded, airless room that is visually and acoustically barren. Thorough preparation and utter attentiveness on the part of every singer will be key to good rehearsals and satisfying performances. Later in the week we move to the stunning and graceful Mortensen Auditorium at The Bushnell, where we'll have better light, space, room, and acoustic. In an earlier essay, I wrote about the challenges of transitioning from piano rehearsals to orchestral rehearsals. Much to think about as we work through our final rehearsals.

Adding to the challenge will be grappling with the work itself: Beethoven's mighty and magnificent Missa Solemnis. Beethoven's dramatic quasi-operatic score calls for a degree of vocal , physical, and intellectual stamina that surpasses anything that most composers dare to contemplate. Of course, the vocal challenges of the Missa Solemnis are well known, as I wrote about in the same earlier essay. We sing VERY HIGH! We sing very low! We sing VERY LOUDLY! We sing very softly. We sing suddenly, we start, we stop. We shift, we soar, we dive, we grovel. We embrace, we reject, we reconcile. We weep, we pray, we rejoice, we shout, we rage.

The choir sings nearly from start to finish; there are no solo arias or ensembles during which the choir may sit for entire movements, as happens in many masses or oratorios. (We will be seated very briefly — just 60 seconds — between movements.) ... I was about to write "And we must also contend with the orchestra," meaning that we must be able to sing over, through, and with the instrumental forces that are seated between us and the audience. But "contend with" sounds adversarial, and that is not at all the case. Rather, the chorus is part of Beethoven's orchestra. The Missa is not really vocal music, is it? It's instrumental music overlaid with text.

By calling the vocal writing "instrumental," I do not mean to imply that Beethoven writes without regard to text. On the contrary, his mastery of the texts and their historical and theological subtleties is complete. (I could write an entire essay on the word-painting and textual expressiveness in the Missa Solemnis.) Rather, I mean that Beethoven does not write sympathetically for the voice, as, for example, Mozart did so instinctively and so successfully. When singing Mozart, one always senses that the composer understood the vocal instrument completely and had it in mind as he wrote, much as he completely understood the clarinet, writing for that instrument the two seminal works (Concerto, K. 622 and Quintet, K. 582) that remain the best in the repertoire. Bach might be a better contrasting example; his vocal music is also essentially instrumental, yet he wrote with innate understanding for the voice, such that performing his music is a physical and vocal pleasure even as it is intellectually and spiritually fulfilling.

Beethoven, on the other hand, seems to have made no effort to accommodate the vocal instrument. On the contrary, the vocal writing in the Missa seem to be deliberately imitative of orchestral instruments, and I believe that we should sing them that way. Beethoven expects that the choral singers will be able to sing the Missa with clarity, conviction, and command. To do so requires finding the right voice for this particular music; I'll explore that topic in my next essay.

(Aside: I've never heard finer playing from The Hartford Symphony Orchestra than when they performed as part of the Three Choirs Festival on April 27. Bravi. Much to be said for the power of choral music to unite and uplift...)

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: