The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: What makes Beethoven’s “Missa” massive? Hear it for yourself this weekend at UW (Part 1 of 2)

April 26, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday and Sunday nights, the UW Choral Union – a campus and community chorus – will team up with the UW Symphony Orchestra to perform Beethoven’s late and massive (85 minutes long) “Missa Solemnis,” Op. 123.

Performances are in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $8 for seniors over 62 and students. Call 262-2201 or 265-ARTS or 252-1500. Tickets will be sold at the door starting 30 minutes before the performance.

I recently asked Beverly Taylor (below), the director choral activities at the UW School of Music and the assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, to discuss the Missa, which she will conduct after a semester of rehearsals.

What follows is the first of a two-part interview with Taylor. The second part will be posted Tuesday.

What is the place and importance of the Missa Solemnis in Beethoven’s body of work and in choral music or music in general?

It’s one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote, the other being the very classical Mass in C (which Choral Union performed last season.)  The Missa Solemnis, with its drama large color palate and dramatic demands is one of the great works of western art.

How big are the forces that will perform it in May and who are the soloists?

The Choral Union (shown rehearsing below) is about 160 singers and the orchestra about half that.  The soloists are Brooke Jackson, who is a terrific soprano who works for the University, Jennifer Sams, who is working on her doctorate at the UW in voice, Heath Rush, who is an opera singer who coaches with Prof. James Doing, and Tom Weis, who received his doctorate from the UW and who has been teaching at Carroll College and performing in the Milwaukee area.

The work has the reputation for being hard to perform. Is that true and what makes it difficult?

Absolutely it’s true.  For the singers, it’s the range and tessitura, tessitura being the part of the voice where most of the notes fall.  In the Missa Solemnis, all the voice parts sing both low and high in their ranges, and the tessitura for sopranos and tenors is fairly high throughout.  Beethoven also asks the chorus to sing much faster than many other composers during parts of the work.  For the orchestra, there is some very fast playing and occasionally difficult passage work, and a wide range of dynamics.

What are the challenges of the work for the average listener?

On most levels, I think Beethoven’s intent is obvious—that is, the dramatically varied dynamics and speeds are obvious.  But it’s important in the Beethoven also to enter the spirit of the wonderful slow, elegiac sections, such as the opening of the Sanctus.  And it can be interesting to see where Beethoven deviates from normal mass-settings practice by repeating earlier text.

For instance, in most classical masses, the chorus sings the Sanctus, followed by a Hosanna, then the Benedictus followed by the same or another Hosanna.  Beethoven brings back the Benedictus words in the middle of a hosanna.  And in the Dona nobis pacem( “Grant us peace”)  he suddenly inserts another “Miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us) from the Agnus Dei into the Dona nobis pacem.

Why did you choose the Missa Solemnis?

I’ve both admired and feared it for years.  I’ve prepared the work for three other conductors.  The first two performances were college singers, untrained voices.  I thought the work was a bit too much for them vocally.  But I also prepared the chorus for the Madison Symphony some years ago, and found that with some older singers, allowing them sometimes to drill down an octave and other methods kept the voices fresh.  Choral Union is a mixture of college students and community adults, so we’re able to do well, I think.  I also was looking for an exciting symphonic work that only had double winds and no piano or extra percussion, so that we could all fit more or less in Mills Hall.

What do you like most and least about the work?

I love the sweep of color, speed, and dynamic contrast.  There are parts that are unbelievably exciting, and other parts that are tender.  The writing for the orchestra is truly symphonic, not simply an accompaniment.

What I like least is, oddly enough, also an interesting feature of the piece—the high range.

I sang soprano on the work in a performance of Robert Shaw’s years ago, and I remember naming the end of the Credo the “You’ve got to be kidding” section, because after pages of high notes, you turn the page and sing more high notes SLOWLY.

The work also is hard to balance—you really could use a chorus of 250 with a full size orchestra playing.

BONUS: Here is an audio-visual clip of Leonard Bernstein conducting the “Kyrie” with soloists and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam:

Tomorrow: What the public should listen for; how budget cuts have affected the Choral Union; and next season’s schedule of works.

Posted in Classical music

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