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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Concert Review: The Struggle Within

The LSO conquers Beethoven's toughest work.
Sir Colin Davis leading the LSO.
Photo © 2010 London Symphony Orchestra.

When Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis, the idea of playing a Roman Catholic Mass as concert music was a completely new one. On Friday night, Sir Colin Davis led the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a powerful, sometimes wrenching performance that shed light on the titanic forces at play in the pages of challenging choral work.

This was the second of three appearances by the LSO, at Lincoln Center this week, and the last under the baton of this brilliant 84-year-old maestro. It also marked the first major event of the three week White Light Festival. Now in its second year, White Light is a Lincoln Center event that seeks to bring listeners to contemplate their own lives through the experience of music, art, theater and dance.

At first approach, the Missa Solemnis seems to sprawl, shifting wildly in instrumentation and style over the course of five movements. The choral singing is central here, with the great shout of "Kyrie!" that opens the work. Two long movements: the Gloria and Credo are fervent expressions of rock-solid faith. These featured impressive solo singing from the four soloists: soprano Helena Juntunen, mezzo Sarah Connolly, tenor Paul Groves and bass Matthew Rose. Beethoven would use the same vocal arrangement in his Ninth Symphony.

Mentioning the Ninth at this point is relevant, as the complex choral structures found in the Missa Solemnis act like sketches for the much more famous final movement, the Ode to Joy. In both works, Beethoven calls for massive tuttis, a military march, and even a mighty double fugue (on the words "In vitam venturi") at the end of the Credo. Also, both works are taxing to the performers, the product of a composer who had lost his hearing completely and was now writing music that ordinary mortals would have to struggle to perform.

Those mortals were up to the task, particularly the LSO chorus under Sir Colin's sure baton. They created real religious mystery in the slow, wondering phrases that open the Sanctus. This led to the Benedictus, with an eloquent solo violin part played by LSO concertmaster Gordan Nikolitch. The Agnus Dei whipsawed between peace and a belligerent, martial stance with its drum-rolls and trumpet fanfares. Beethoven clearly favored a God willing to kick some ass in this mortal coil.

Sir Colin Davis has always had a reputation as a singer's conductor, and he assembled a good team of soloists for this performance. Tenor Paul Groves and mezzo Sarah Connolly are familiar to New York audiences from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Soprano Helena Juntunen is a talented singer whose clear sweet tone sometimes struggled to be heard over orchestra, chorus, and her fellow singers. Matthew Rose was an impressive bass.

In the final movement, the chorus were the real stars. Even as the orchestra thundered and brandished its brassy weapons upon Beethoven's apocalyptic landscape. the massed singers turned Dona nobis pacem into a cry for peace and a mighty shout of humanity. The brew of strong choral singing with the powerful, flexible orchestra made this finale a heady experience. This is music from a troubled time in history. It speaks volumes to today's war and terror-torn world.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.