A stormy, stirring Missa Solemnis by the Master Chorale

By Truman C. Wang

Last night, in stormy weather, no less, the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Music Director Grant Gershon led a momentous, stirring account of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  It was a welcome reminder of the Master Chorale’s previous performance of the work, some dozen years ago, in 2004.  On that occasion, the great spirituality of music overtook one member of the audience sitting high up behind the orchestra, and he stood up to pray during the divinely beautiful Benedictus.  At last night’s concert, for whatever reason, the same section was left empty.  There was no prayer.  Instead, we got a speech from Mr. Gershon at the beginning.  Religious spirituality took a back seat to urgent cries for social and national unity.

This time around, the high solo violin in Benedictus glowed less brightly, waxed less spiritual, and acquired a somewhat muscular tone, as if Beethoven is trying to force God’s hand to answer his prayers.   It was an interesting reading but entirely apposite given the contentious times that we live in today.

Missa Solemnis is a conventional mass in structure with the usual five sections of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.  But like his revolutionary Symphony No. 5, Beethoven did some brilliant things within the sections that no one had one before and few had done since.  Among those revolutionary ideas -- the rapid crescendos and decrescendos in high register, the high-flying vocal lines testing the limits of the soloists and, last but not least, the powerful word paintings in the orchestra and chorus.

None of these challenges held terror for the Master Chorale, who dispatched them with utter precision and volcanic passion.  One would not soon forget the frenzied, animalistic shouts of "gloria!" in the big fugue at the end of Gloria (“in Gloria Dei Patris”), or the gentle flood of sounds in “Et vitam venture saeculi” – the other big fugue of the mass.  Throughout the performance, one was shocked and awed by the power and precision in which the Master Chorale conveyed Beethoven’s vivid word painting on such words as “omnipotens”, “descendit”, “ascendit” and “vivos et mortuos”.  

If Missa Solemnis at times sounds overwrought and overtly operatic, it found an ideal quartet of soloists last night who have excelled themselves in opera.  Baritone Rodney Gilfry sang memorably with skillful legato in the opening of Sanctus.  Raquel Gonzalez‘s soprano soared brilliantly in Benedictus.  Allyson McHardy’s plangent mezzo-soprano was heartwarming in Agnus Dei.  Arnold Livingston Geis’ clear-voiced tenor showed surprising power and tended to rise above the quartet.

One final note about this Missa.  Unique to this work, Beethoven put special emphasis on the simple word “Et (and)" throughout the mass.  But the effects were largely lost in the diffuse, live acoustics of the Disney Hall.  The readers are urged to listen for it on a recording.  Perhaps not ‘revolutionary’, but it’s one of many examples of musical symbolism that Beethoven so skilfully crafted into this divine work.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.