Monday, March 5, 2018

Second Presbyterian Church brings back the eminent choral conductor Joseph Flummerfelt

About a year ago, a mainstream Protestant church along the Meridian Street corridor welcomed Joseph Flummerfelt  out of retirement to lead a major composition for chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra. On Sunday another such event about 15 blocks north similarly featured the native Hoosier as guest conductor.

The 2017 event was at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and the vehicle was Joseph Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass. Yesterday Ludwig van Beethoven, who acknowledged Haydn as a master, was represented by his Mass in C major, op. 86. Flummerfelt led the Sanctuary Choir of Second Presbyterian Church, with orchestra and guest soloists, in a concert with that work as the sole piece.
Joseph Flummerfelt, revered choral conductor

An orchestra of contracted local professionals, dubbed the Festival Orchestra for this occasion, accompanied the voices. When the solo quartet is used, it is woven in and out of the choral texture, with an intriguing lack of showcasing.

What is striking about the piece is evident immediately. Though the program note correctly situates the work in Beethoven's middle period, the first movement, Kyrie eleison, seems to pay a debt of youthful gratitude to Haydn, Beethoven's teacher for a short time in Vienna.  There is a further look backward in the lovely writing for wind instruments as the Sanctus gets under way — to Haydn's Harmoniemesse, written several years before and so designated because of the prominence it gives to winds.

The church choir seemed adequate to its varied tasks, responding well to the variety in dynamics that Flummerfelt called for in the Kyrie. The vigor and coordination in the fugal conclusion of the Credo were exemplary, as were the short Hosanna endings to the Sanctus and Benedictus. Momentary weaknesses cropped up here and there, as in the choir's tentative first "miserere nobis" in the Gloria.

There are several places where Beethoven's inclination toward humanism helps the Mass in C speak to a broad spectrum of theologies. The composer who so memorably set text telling us that surely there must be a God above the stars (the Ninth Symphony) had an enduring sense of transcendent reality. Yet that famous finale is firmly based on the achievement of joy in this life. And in Beethoven's other major late work using chorus, Missa Solemnis, the final movement asking God to grant peace includes a startling disruption by martial music. Beethoven knew firsthand what it was like to live in a city pummeled by a military siege.

The humanist message was well conveyed in this performance. The emphasis on "passus" in the Credo holds up Jesus' taking on human suffering, as noted in the program. But also stressed by repetition is "bonae voluntatis" in the Gloria, stipulating that people of good will are most deserving of peace. And, particularly as sung by soloists Alejandra Martinez, Mitzi Westra, David Smolokoff, and Zachary Coates, the quartet texture in the Credo on the incarnation line ("et homo factus est") brought to mind the tender quartet in the opera "Fidelio," "Mir ist so wunderbar." Life in the here and now, shot through with an idealism that was sadly remote from how Beethoven often behaved, was of abiding concern to Beethoven the creative artist.

This performance covered for the early 21st century all salient aspects of the Mass in C major — both as an expression of Christian faith and an assertion of Beethoven's genius in finding new musical meanings in a text well known to him and the audiences of his time.