Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is an entertaining challenge for NSO and Eschenbach

November 2, 2012

Classical music presenters sometimes try to bill concerts as big, unforgettable events. That approach can be problematic if your goal is to cultivate an audience that wants to come again and again, week after week. For most people, one or two big unforgettable events a year is quite enough — not every subscription concert needs to be unforgettable.

But there are some monuments of classical music that simply are big events, like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. That is a massive work, Beethoven’s only large-scale religious piece. It’s one of the crowning achievements by a composer whom every orchestra and every classical music lover loves to venerate, and it is seldom performed.

The National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach performed it Thursday night, and I almost cried at all the empty seats. I’m not trying to blame the marketing department or the potential ticket-buyers who see in this work a great big chunk of intense and difficult music that might be hard to sit through. It’s just that I would like everyone to be as excited about having a chance to hear the work as I am.

Here’s a piece that justifies the existence of an orchestra — and soloists and a chorus (here, the Choral Arts Society), all raising their voices together in what was meant as an ultimate statement of a much-questioned faith, and not only the composer’s own.

Beethoven’s symphonies are the bread-and-butter fare of most orchestras; the relative neglect of this piece, into which he invested four years of hard and thoughtful work, demonstrates how limited our embrace of the Western canon can be. Well, let me temper that: It also demonstrates how challenging a truly big event is to take on — for players and listeners.


Erin Wall, soprano. (Courtesy National Symphony Orchestra)

It was certainly a challenge for the National Symphony Orchestra. Here’s a piece that’s dense with intention and episode, changing its moods on a dime in a way that almost presages Mahler, in which every note counts and a lot of interpretive decisions have to be made to help one stand out from another.

The concert hall is a challenging space for a concert involving so many people, because it can be hard to hear; and the four soloists had an extra obstacle through being positioned amid the chorus. The placement was dramatically effective — as if they were archangels in a heavenly host — but logistically challenging, forcing everyone to push just a little bit to make him- or herself heard. And it was a challenging piece for Eschenbach to lead, because it calls for a technical precision that isn’t his forte.

What is Eschenbach’s forte, though, is heart, and you could argue that just hearing the piece performed with so much warmth and sincerity is more important than occasional muddiness, balance issues, blurry entrances or sense of sameness from having so much intensity poured at one at the same level of energy.

In the Credo, the music changes its mood at the words “et incarnatus est,” showing the radiant and tender humanity of the miracle of God made human. But in Eschenbach’s reading, the tenderness was already audible in the description of God the Father; there was plenty of love in this performance to go around. And when Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, stood and played the violin solo in the Benedictus — a kind of violin concerto mingled with a vocal quartet — she sounded, simply, angelic.

The soloists had much to recommend them and are exonerated from charges of forcing due to their difficult position on (or above) the stage. Kwangchul Youn was the clear-sounding bass, and Richard Croft was the ardent tenor, whose his voice wasn’t quite as heroic as it was sometimes trying to sound yet he gave a performance of outstanding integrity.

Mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion exuded operatic warmth, sometimes to the brink of overemoting, and soprano Erin Wall was another slender golden voice rising over it all, like the violin below her.

This was the Choral Arts Society’s first Kennedy Center outing in the tenure of its new music director, Scott Tucker, and it acquitted itself honorably, showing some signs of a body in transition, moving toward a more cohesive and unified sound, and a hint of weakness in the tenors, but overall singing strongly.


Richard Croft, tenor. (Courtesy National Symphony Orchestra)

A critic is not always supposed to function as a cheerleader; it’s my job to uphold the standards of art. But, sometimes, the love of a piece is too strong. There have been better performances of the Missa Solemnis, but you should go see this one anyway. It repeats just once, on Saturday night.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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