Sunday, June 26, 2011

Missa Monstra

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.

Other reviews:


Shawn Ying said...

Chorus did not attend the rehearsal on Thursday. Orchestra and Soloists did. The rehearsal in the afternoon and evening did involve the chorus. As I mentioned on FB, I think it must to be very tricky for the solo quartet. It seems the soloists never sings by him/herself in this work, except the Bass opening of the Agnus Dei. The quartet always sang together and the rhythm and vocal line for each voice is just so different. Learning your own note is no long enough. You almost have to memorized the whole score and make your body remember the music physically. Because, any hesitation would cause a train wreck.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Shawn - by "the rehearsal in the afternoon and evening," do you mean the Wednesday rehearsals that are on the chorus schedule? (http://www.sfsymphony.org/UploadedFiles/music/musicians/2010-11_chorus_calendar_012011.pdf) A tough week, in any event.

I agree with you about the solo quartet parts. It's an exception difficult piece for everybody. I remember a surprising amount of it from singing it in the 80s, but not nearly enough to sing it without a lot of rehearsal time.

Do you have any idea what's up with Christine Brewer? I am sad about how she sounded, hope she has a cold or something.

Rebecca said...

I'm surprised by this. I've sung Missa Solemnis at least three times, as a choral alto and a choral soprano, and I agree with your assessment of the piece. It is exhausting to sing. Problems with the opening movement usually mean a disconnect between the chorus and conductor/orchestra, because I cannot believe that the symphony chorus would be unsure about the work itself. If a shoestring festival chorus can pull it together in a week in Austria, surely a pro chorus can.

In general, I think that there are far too few chorus/orchestra rehearsals. It takes a exceptional chorus to move quickly from rehearsal pianist mode to singing with an orchestra (and in some cases a totally new conductor), and we would do orchestral choral repertoire a much greater service if we allowed more time for this transition.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Symphony Chorus has 30 pro members. The other 100 or so are volunteers.

Jenny White said...

I was way up at the top of the balcony on Friday and am no professional singer, but I was surprised at how unmoved I was by this piece. It seemed huge and overly complex. To me it seemed like the performers were doing a decent enough job but the piece itself was the problem. (How dare I speak ill of Beethoven?!) I read in the program that Beethoven had immersed himself in Renaissance & Baroque sacred music in order to compose this. To me Beethoven sort of reaches his pinnacle in works that are truly Romantic, German, stirring and strong. Maybe he was trying to reach back to something that just didn’t fit with his temperament and his time. Afterwards I decided to hum to myself the clarion call of “O Freunde” in the last movement of the ninth symphony – so clear, so simple and powerful – to compensate. The Missa Solemnis just seemed like a complex exercise in comparison, all very artfully put together and impressively difficult to perform. Then I came home and cleared my head with Bach’s Mass in B Minor – so simple and so moving in contrast. I would be curious how you’d respond, Lisa.

Shawn Ying said...

Yes, I meant Wednesday. Not to find excuses, I think the way the chorus were placed had some negative affect on Thursday performance also. With the room full of the audience, the acoustic changed. It might took some part of Kyrie to adjust the singers' hearing and confidence. We cannot hear sound coming from the singers in the front two rows. I really wish that hall was designed to support the human voices.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Jenny, and thanks. The Miss is a hard piece to bring off, because of the complexity and changes of tone. It can be great. The performance I heard was not.

I do not think the Mass in B Minor is a simple piece, though it is far more stylistically consistent that the Missa.

Thanks, Shawn. Davies is an unfortunate hall for so much music...