Sunday, May 18, 2008

A "Soulful Performance" of the Missa Solemnis

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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
courant.com/entertainment/music/reviews/hc-hsorev0518.artmay18,0,2180290.story

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