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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Concert Review: The Long Reliever

The Boston Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.
From the bullpen: conductor John Oliver poses in Symphony Hall
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has had problems with conductors staying healthy. Its most recent music director, James Levine, had to step down after a series of cancellations and absenteeism. Former maestro Seiji Ozawa recently announced that he is taking a year's sabbatical for health reasons. The latest victim: Kurt Masur, who, at 83 has been looking frail in his recent appearances. Mr. Masur cancelled all of his planned appearances with the orchestra on Feb. 23, citing "physical" issues. 

This left the BSO with a massive choral work to perform, and the search for a conductor to lead it. The choice: John Oliver, who founded the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in 1970 and has led it ever since. Mr. Oliver is an acclaimed expert in the field of choral music, but most of his work is done in rehearsals, working with singers before the scheduled conductor leads the performance.

To make matters more difficult, the Missa Solemnis is a monster among Beethoven's works, an 85-minute marathon for four singers, chorus and orchestra that has some of the same inherent problems as the composer's Ninth Symphony. A choral setting of the Catholic liturgy, it is that was simply too big in scope for any church. (It might even be too big for the concert stage, but that's where the work is usually heard.) It points the way forward to the choral excesses of the 19th and 20th century, being an ancestor to Berlioz' Requiem, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.

Tuesday night's performance at Carnegie Hall was the opening of the BSO's three night stand in New York this week. The performance featured the orchestra,  Tanglewood Festival Chorus and an all-star team of soloists: soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Michelle DeYoung, tenor Simon O'Neill, and bass Eric Owens. And at the head of this little army: Mr. Oliver, who seemed unbowed by the musical challenge ahead. 

The one-two punch of the opening Kyrie and Gloria was tightly played and sung, all the more impressive since Beethoven's vocal writing is not always flattering to singers. Ms. Brewer's soprano grazed the plaster of Carnegie Hall, while Ms. DeYoung declaimed her text with richness and warmth. Mr. Oliver was firmly in command, and the chorus, working without the usual sheet music books, responded ably to his leadership. This is powerful writing, with each movement capable of standing on its own merits.  

Beethoven's setting of the Credo is the center of this ceremony, a blow-by-blow interpretation of the Nicene Creed that stands somewhere between Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. It also has the greatest degree of difficulty for singers, with fine details of the ritual picked out in the orchestral and vocal writing. These range from the sharp stabs of sound to accompany the nailing of Christ to the cross to the glowing textures of affirmation that accompany the profession of faith in the light of the world to come.

The Sanctus is the slow movement of this work, building from a deceptively gentle beginning to a steady march of faith and determination. Mr. O'Neill displayed range in these sensitive pages, his voice intertwining with the concert-master in a kind of double concerto. The chorus provided hushed, celestial commentary in the most beautiful section of the performance.

Mr. Oliver is a skilled choral conductor, but he ran into problems with the closing Agnus Dei. This long setting of the prayer to the Lamb of God and the following Benedictus had Beethoven mining unknown musical territory with a mix of celestial harmonies, a contrapuntal fugato and a series of martial figures for trumpets and drums that reflects the war-torn state of Europe in the early 19th century.

The opening of the movement was led off by Mr. Owens, whose stentorian bass presaged the struggle to come. The problems started with the fugato, which seemed to meander around the orchestra. The brass figures were curiously muted, with the trumpets sounding somewhat timid. Although the soloists and chorus finished with a strong statement of Dona nobis pacem, the big finale didn't quite match the awesome movements that had come before.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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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.