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Music review: 'Missa Solemnis' with missteps from Cathedral Choral Society

By Alfred Thigpen
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 7:56 AM

Some performances are better learned from and then forgotten. For Music Director J. Reilly Lewis and the Cathedral Choral Society, that could take a while. "It's something in the air," Lewis announced from the podium to a near-capacity crowd on Sunday at Washington National Cathedral. What was in the ether were disruptive stops and start-overs in Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." A venerable choral conductor, Lewis found himself mired in an uncharacteristic nightmare of contrasts, ranging from redemptive eloquence on second takes to onstage frustration best summarized by a vocal soloist's audible sigh.

Things began well with Beethoven's Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, known as a thematic precursor to his Ninth Symphony. Pianist Edward Newman's interpretation was delightfully romantic, with maximum employment of sustain pedal and robust arpeggios that showcased a relaxed technical prowess. Chorus, orchestra and vocal sextet provided a cohesive reading of this work and a skewed sense of anticipation for the Mass.

A cathedral is not always the ideal place for a large-scale work. Line of vision and acoustical challenges transformed the chorus into a wash under the soloists' downstage impasto. What did carry, however, was the choir's trademark preparation. Sopranos sustained Beethoven's improbably high passages with strength, while orchestrally, cellos and violas were unshakably reliable, notably in their exquisite accompaniment of the Sanctus.

Even in the best of circumstances, "Missa Solemnis" is neither an easy listen nor an easy performance. Clearly aware of this challenge, Sunday's house gave a scattered but pained standing ovation, all of which drives home the adage that live performances are indeed risky business.

Thigpen is a freelance writer.

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