San Francisco Symphony put on Beethoven's Missa Solemnis the other day (last performance is this afternoon, if you can brave the Pride Parade crowds), and I reviewed the concert for SFCV. Herewith some further thoughts.
I'm willing to bet that I'm the only person reviewing this week's concert who has sung the thing; not only that, but I was an assistant conductor of the chorus I sang it with, so the score I leafed through while writing the review is a full orchestral score.
I tell you, it is a frighting piece to look at, let alone sing. Remember the great Wagnerian soprano Lilli Lehmann's line? The one about how she'd rather sing all three Bruennhildes than one Norma? I feel that way about the Missa. It's like singing the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony three times, only worse. The Missa contains multiple fugues, all complex and instrumental; the rhetorical tone changes often; it's long; it's high; it's loud. It's a monster.
A couple of weeks ago, SFCV founder Robert Commanday said that one of the choruses he'd prepared to sing the Missa had learned it in six or seven rehearsals. Wow. That must have been one fantastic group, because the Stony Brook Chamber Singers worked on it off and on for a year without feeling completely secure about it.
My review came close to describing Thursday's performance as a near train-wreck, and it was, but I hate to use such linguistic shorthand to describe complex circumstances. I hear from the grapevine that the symphony and chorus had a full rehearsal Thursday during the day, meaning everyone sang it twice that day. On one hand, they probably needed it. On the other, that would be exhausting.
I hear from elsewhere on the grapevine that MTT has been working on and thinking about the Missa for a couple of years, and that the performances, including that of Christine Brewer and Gregory Kunde, have improved since Thursday night. That's all good. I wonder seriously what it would have been like had Ragnar Bohlin, chorusmaster of the Symphony Chorus, been at the helm, just because it is so tough for the chorus.