Worthy choral singing lifts an uneven “Missa Solemnis”

Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 10:52 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” was performed Monday night by the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest at Symphony Center.

Two years ago, the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest embarked upon an ambitious project to present Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand at Orchestra Hall. A suburban ensemble fielding the vast choral and symphonic resources to mount this mammoth work was impressive by itself; the fact that the performance under music director Jay Friedman proved a solid and compelling experience was notable indeed.

Friedman and his intrepid west suburban ensemble returned to Symphony Center Monday night, this time for a performance of another large-scale work for orchestra, soloists and chorus, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

If the forces called for in Beethoven’s mighty solemn mass are not quite as vast as Mahler’s behemoth Eighth, the musical challenges are in many ways even more daunting. While sections of the Mahler can get by on sonic sound and fury alone, the extraordinary emotional range and spiritual depth of Beethoven’s mass call for an even greater and more refined expressive palette.

Monday night at Symphony Center, Friedman led an admirable if ultimately uneven performance of Beethoven’s mass. Longtime principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Friedman is a superb conductor and displayed a sure feel for Beethoven’s epic canvas. Yet it was hard to avoid the feeling that the orchestra was too often, in over its head in this intensely challenging music. The playing was competent rather than inspired, with too many ragged moments, including ill-tuned woodwinds and repeated disarray in the horns. One bright spot was concertmaster John Gerson, who contributed a sweet-toned, mostly fluent violin solo in the Benedictus.

After a decidedly cautious and metrical opening Kyrie, Friedman’s direction gathered force and conviction as the 90-minute work unfolded. The choral climaxes and big dramatic moments came off best, with timpani and trumpets cutting through the textures. What was lacking overall was a sense of the Missa’s essential spiritual repose and solace, with such passages as the Sanctus and Credo emerging rather blankly literal and on the surface.

While not offering the vocal heft and gleam of a starry lineup, the local soloists proved a well-balanced and worthy quartet. Soprano Marcy Stonikas had some perilous moments in the high tessitura, but along with mezzo Tracy Watson, tenor Kurt Hansen and bass Peter van de Graaff sang expressively and sensitively. Watson was particularly inspired, singing with notable emotional commitment and all the soloists were at their finest in the Incarnatus and closing Agnus Dei.

The most consistent element of Monday’s performance was the impressive choral singing. The combined forces of the Chicago Chorale and the Chorus of the Oak Park and River Forest Symphony managed to balance the orchestra’s rough edges, showing flexibility in the great choral fugues and dramatic force and expressive eloquence throughout under the direction of Bruce Tammen and Bill Chin, directors of the chorale and symphony chorus, respectively.

Posted in Performances

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