The NC Master Chorale presented Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in Meymandi Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon. Just up the road there was some competition in the form of a visit from a former president. The Missa should have been headline news in the papers and other media outlets, for performances hereabouts are rare – a dedicated music lover who doesn’t frequent the world's music capitals is likely to book no more than a handful of performances in a lifetime. If memory serves, it has not been offered in the capital in more than a decade.
So this was a very big deal. And the place ought to have been packed to the rafters or the gills or whatever. But it wasn't. And we can't blame that on a visiting choir at Duke (for a review of which, click here) - or, for that matter, on Bill Clinton. For some, then, this was a lost opportunity to experience an indubitably great masterwork for the first – or perhaps for the last – time…. (For the record, it's my favorite choral mass of any kind, partly because its fifth soloist – the concertmaster – can, on a good day, make that little Preludium between the Sanctus and the Benedictus a true foretaste of what good religious folk with inklings of salvation and a predilection for the classics might imagine as music for entry into Paradise.)
And the stars and the planets were in good alignment for success. The NCMC is the capital's finest big choir, by miles and miles – nearly 240 auditioned voices filled risers behind the orchestra, above it, and beside it. The four soloists – soprano Meghan Dewald, mezzo-soprano Cristy Lynn Brown, tenor Wade Henderson, and bass Donnie Ray Albert – are expert vocalists, well-skilled in oratorio work and sensitive to one another while singing. The orchestra consisted of nearly 50 players, including some of the very best artists in our region, headed by violinist Carol Chung – the "fifth soloist," noted above. On the podium was Alfred E. Sturgis, whose experience and maturity make him a natural for leading such a complex and challenging work.
The performance got off to a very good start, with superior playing and singing. Here and there throughout it would have been nice had the instrumentalists been slightly more incisive – I am thinking of the attacks at the starts of new sections – but overall there was little about which to complain: the winds were true, the brasses, nicely gauged, the timpani, spot on, and the strings, rich and full. There are many more women than men singers, and as elsewhere in NC, tenors are at a premium, but the balance was good and it's a fact that 240 voices can, when so inclined, pretty much overpower an orchestra of 50, even when the orchestra is between the singers and the audience.
So the Kyrie and then the Gloria unfolded with power and majesty, the forces handsomely coordinated and dovetailed into a truly heart-warming, all-encompassing experience.
Then, after half an hour, there was an intermission.
There followed the Credo, generally well paced aside from its finale, which to these ears seemed just a shade too leisurely. The Sanctus, with its incorporated Benedictus, made its anticipated mark as chorus, solo singers, and Chung delivered on all counts. Sturgis paused briefly as it ended, to allow its impact to register. Yes, heaven on earth, or so one might think.
And then came the lovely concluding part, the Agnus Dei, in which basso Donnie Ray Albert's vocal radiance set the stage for the spiritual and musical conclusion of this extraordinary work. There was at the conclusion quite a long pause as Sturgis stood motionless on the podium.
The applause was prolonged.
There are more important things than politics.
The Missa Solemnis is one of them.
But next time, please – no intermission. Play one of the "Leonore" Overtures or some other short thing, take a break, and then do the mass without interruption – it’s not too long. That's the key to maximizing its cumulative emotional, spiritual, and musical effect.
The score indicates an organ continuo part. This is sometimes heard in performances in churches and on recordings. The musical effect is to enrich and deepen the sound, but if one notices the organ's presence, it's probably too loud. There isn't an organ in Meymandi, and it would probably have been cost-prohibitive to bring one in. All that said, a physical provision for a pipe organ in the hall was made when the place was built over a decade ago. As the economy improves, perhaps someone in city hall should resurrect the idea of this enhancement.