Saturday, October 10, 2015

ISO Classical Series: Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis' with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir makes its difficult way into our hearts

"He dreams, yet his idea has body," Georges Bizet wrote in praise of Beethoven, marveling at how thoroughly worked the German master's inspirations seem — nothing tossed off or nonchalantly soliciting easy applause.
Hans Graf

The composer of "Carmen" was not referring to Missa Solemnis, op. 123, in particular. But no piece by Beethoven is more representative of a genius' imagination harnessed to struggle and earned triumph.

That was evident in the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance of Missa Solemnis Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The concert was under the seasoned guidance of guest conductor Hans Graf, with the ISC prepared by its scrupulous, insightful artistic director, Eric Stark. Four guest soloists put in a hard evening's work as well: soprano Cyndia Sieden, mezzo-soprano Julia Boulianne, tenor Colin Balzer, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg.

Everyone was dreaming the same substantial dream.  And no one did so more effectively than ISO concertmaster Zachary De Pue, who played the lengthy violin solo in Sanctus with tenderness and appropriate uplift. Every phrase sang out and was sustained in coordination first with the solo quartet, then with the chorus.

The Grand Mass in D cost the composer several years of intense work at the outset and climax of his final period. Its 90-minute expanse and sizable performing forces never contradict its intimate, personal address to the Almighty.

His handling of the Latin text of the Ordinary emphasizes the centrality of belief, with a turn toward the woes of the world in the finale, Agnus Dei. That's where martial music breaks into the choir's oft-repeated plea for peace, an episode that in this performance delivered the right controlled air of disturbance and borderline panic.

Though never a faithful churchgoer, scholars tell us, Beethoven was no modernist in religious matters. The mystery of the Godhead focused his attention, and that faith comes through in great detail in this work. Not surprisingly, Jesus was less important to him as an ethical teacher. Biographically, the composer's sly dealing with several publishers while Missa solemnis was in progress underlines that point.

As Friday's performance got under way, I was struck by the exquisite phrasing of "Kyrie eleison," an appeal for mercy that seemed to exhale unswerving faith as the choir sang the words. This note of reverence was maintained even in the face of disruptions and explosions that Beethoven's notion of his task required him to put in the musicians' way.

The work's difficulties are expressive as well as technical. In several places, the choir is challenged to articulate the same material the orchestra has just presented. This can hardly be done crisply, especially in the whirlwind climax of the Gloria, with its jumble of tempos and textures.  Nonetheless, the ISC largely had the full measure of the piece. When the technical demands weren't nearly insurmountable, the choir's expressive aplomb was stunning: The vast range between the initial shout of "Gloria" and the hushed next line, "et in terra pax," was precisely presented. The mostly quiet fugue at the end of the Credo was a yoke the choir bore easily, as if its burden were light.

It's germane to linger for a bit on the inscription Beethoven wrote on the score he presented to his devoted patron, Archduke Rudolph. It's usually translated as "From the heart — may it return — to the heart." The odd punctuation is in the original, too. Note how the grammar of the sentence is about motion, while the punctuation suggests stasis.

This could be the composer's deliberate representation of the polarities of tradition — the heritage of church music that he studied and carefully departed from here — as well as the innovative subjectivity he described to Rudolph this way in an 1819 letter to his patron: "In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And though we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well."

Friday's performance encompassed both the solidity and the freedom of Beethoven's achievement in Missa Solemnis. The result has moved many people over the past two centuries, however much or little they share Beethoven's faith. A half-century ago, my father, a church musician who admitted to being increasingly skeptical in his later years, spoke of how much it had meant to him to to be in a Missa Solemnis  chorus made up in part of choir directors gathered for a workshop conducted by Robert Shaw. As Michael Steinberg notes in his essay on Missa Solemnis, Shaw probably conducted the work more than anyone in history.
Robert Shaw and my father talk about Beethoven's masterpiece.

In the summer of 1965, he came to Oakland University in Michigan for a master class with choral conductors culminating in a performance of Beethoven's great Mass. A newspaper photographer took this photo during a rehearsal break; Shaw autographed the print, my father's white shirt providing a convenient place in the photo to write "Who? Me?"

Now, Richard W. Harvey was not fond of Beethoven's writing for chorus in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, finding it punishing on singers and audience alike. Yet he was thoroughly charmed by Shaw's way with the Missa Solemnis.

But doesn't it have lots more of that "Ode to Joy" thing going on? I asked him a few days after the performance, which I did not get to hear. Dad maintained that under the leadership of perhaps the greatest choral conductor America has produced, Missa Solemnis had been uniquely persuasive.

Many other music-lovers inclined to skepticism — whether on musical or theological grounds — have been similarly won over, and will continue to be, given such performances as the one we heard Friday night.

In Bizet's terms, Beethoven's most earnest and elaborate dream endures, thanks to its compelling idea and the body that supports it, from "Lord, have mercy" to "Grant us peace."