The Joyful Noise Of 'Missa Latina'

Roberto Sierra's work was given its world premiere by the NSO.
Roberto Sierra's work was given its world premiere by the NSO. (Kennedy Center)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

Much, perhaps most of the devotional music in the classical repertory tends to be intense and cathartic -- one thinks of Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions, Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" and virtually every Requiem Mass dating to the Renaissance. Yet some solid religious works are also good light music, in the best sense of that much maligned phrase -- works that entertain as surely as if they had been put together with no grander ambition than to give their audience a happy time in the theater. The "Gloria" of Francis Poulenc, the "Magnificat" of Alan Hovhaness and Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" come to mind.

To this uneven but uniformly likable roster may now be added the "Missa Latina" by the contemporary composer Roberto Sierra, which received its world premiere last night in a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin.

Seventy minutes long, scored for soprano, baritone, chorus and an orchestra augmented by piano and numerous percussion instruments, the "Missa Latina" is filled with juicy tunes, pulsating rhythms, tender writing for its vocal soloists and jubilant exclamations for chorus. It is unapologetically accessible -- tonal, melodic and, for much of its duration, endowed with a good solid beat -- yet it never seems to be pandering. No, the "Missa Latina" is remarkably organic in its expression: If it is music that sets out to be liked -- perhaps loved -- it is also a unified and, one suspects, deeply felt utterance of the heart.

It certainly received a joyful send-off. The chorus sounded both transparent and powerful; soprano Heidi Grant Murphy sang her long, limpid part with a fresh and florid sweetness, while Nathaniel Webster brought decorum and agility to the passages for baritone. Slatkin, who commissioned the "Missa," seemed to be having the time of his life, working hard, conducting with affection, with a full command of the score's many complications and that same sense of rapt, delighted discovery I recall from his years with the St. Louis Symphony.

Judging any work on the evidence of such a brief acquaintance is always risky; still, it is probably safe to say that the "Missa Latina" will bring pleasure to a great many listeners. (Indeed, the "Sanctus" could almost be turned into a pop song.) Samuel Johnson used to say that the first duty of a book was to make us want to read it through; similarly, I can't imagine anybody who starts listening to the "Missa Latina" wanting to turn it off before it is over. It is stronger in some parts than others (the more somber moments of the "Credo" struck me as clotted), but there are pleasures aplenty to keep one's attention throughout -- and it closes with a rhythmic vamp so seductive you might just be tempted to dance out of the concert hall.

"Missa Latina" will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.

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