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Friday, October 24, 2014

Concert Review: It's All in the Context

The Mozart Great Mass in C Minor at St. Ignatius Loyola.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The St. Ignatius Loyola Choir and Orchestra.
Photo by Rachel Papo © 2014 Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.
Does the power and majesty of a sacred choral work need to be performed in a church? That's the question posed by Sacred Music in a Sacred Space, the series of concerts held annually at St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. Featuring the church's own chorus and orchestra under the baton of music director K. Scott Warren, this series opened its 26th season Wednesday night with Mozart's Great Mass in C minor and Haydn's Symphony No. 97.

No. 97 is one of the "London" symphonies, the dozen works that the composer created at the behalf of impresario Johann Joseph Salomon. These works represent the culmination of Haydn's career as a symphonist, containing innovations that would prove crucial to the development of the form in the 19th century. Here, Haydn made conspicuous use of the ländler, an Austrian peasant dance that would also inspire scherzo movements in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler.

The St. Ignatius Loyola Orchestra draws its roster from major New York orchestras, including the Orchestra of St. Luke's. However, the Haydn symphony, with its delicate textures and modest forces, was overwhelmed by the cavernous church. Strings and winds blurred against reflective surfaces, and the opening movement was swallowed up by the ceiling arches. Although the symphony was played with relish, the effect was nullified.

Chorus and four soloists joined the orchestra for the Mozart's Great Mass, and the acoustic problems largely disappeared. The opening of the Kyrie was indeed powerful, with singers sounding robust and enthusiastic in this first movement. Soprano Martha Guth took the first solo (Christe eleison), soaring above the driving orchestra and injecting a genuine note of pleading into her performance.

Mozart left this Mass incomplete, abandoning the work for other projects in 1783.  He only completed the Kyrie, Gloria, part of the Credo the Sanctus and the Benedictus, but what was finished was performed in Salzburg in that same year. Some of this music was later recycled into a cantata, Davide Penitente. Also, a melodic line here, a set of triple brass chords there show up in certain passages of the very secular Die Zauberflöte.

The Gloria is magnificent, breaking this section of the liturgy down into smaller movements that play out like numbers in an opera.  Here, high drama was present in the lengthy Domine deus duet for two sopranos: Ms. Guth and Marguerite Krull. The Qui tollis, an elaborate double fugue for the chorus was tightly sung and potent, with a sense of rock-solid faith underpinning the performance.

As the Mass moved through the Credo (partially finished, Mozart stopped working on the piece  after Ms. Guth's solo in Et incarnatus est, the point of the concert became clear. Indeed, the baroque mosaics and high, gilted arches of St. Ignatius Loyola seemed to aid and emphasize the message of this sacred work. With the two male soloists (tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert) joining the sopranos for the final Benedictus, the Mass ended in a stirring and powerful fashion, making the listener forget the textual issues and concentrate on the power and glory of this music and its message.
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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.