Nagano, Carlin Team Up to Enhance Beethoven

By Janos GerebenSpecial to the Planet
Tuesday June 15, 2004

A coincidence, raising some eyebrows and concerns in musical circles: 

Exhibit A: Just three weeks ago, the San Francisco Symphony presented a concert version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, with a narration, a running commentary that reviews called everything from “incongruous” to “demeaning.” 

Exhibit B: On Friday, June 18, Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Zellerbach Hall... to be accompanied by a “dramatic reading.” 


“No comparison,” says actor-director Joy Carlin, who will recite the text, “Kent’s idea is not to interpret Beethoven. The spoken texts should give a non-musical point of view to help heighten the experience of the Mass.” Nagano lets the concert speak for itself, but he does ask, rhetoricall y: “Are you up for this wild ride?” 

Missa is a complex masterpiece, infrequently performed in comparison with the contemporaneous Ninth Symphony. Beethoven—at least for his time—wrote relatively few ecclesiastic works; his relationship to religion was u n clear. He was a nominal if not terribly observant Christian, something that could be called, anachronistically, an early Unitarian. 

The work’s ambiguity is reflected in its performance history. Beethoven originally offered it as a High Mass, to be perf or med at the installation of Archduke Rudolph as Archbishop, in 1820. Far from finishing in time, Beethoven continued to work on Missa for years. 

An incomplete version, under the title of Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voice, in German, premiere d a t the 1824 concert which introduced the Ninth Symphony. The entire work, with the proper Latin text, was not performed until 1845, almost two decades after Beethoven’s death. 

Historically, the high mass (missa solemnis) consisted only of singing by t he c elebrants (priests) and chanting or polyphonic singing by the choir, in contrast to the low mass (missa privata) in which everything was spoken. The spoken text to be introduced by the Berkeley Symphony between sections of this sung Mass will be, app arent ly, more “spiritual” than “religious.” Carlin says she will recite some scriptural passages, along with excerpts from ancient Greek drama. 

For Carlin, this is a reunion with Nagano and the BSO. She acted as narrator for the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castl e and performed at the symphony’s young people’s concert in two commissioned works by Jean Pascal Beintus, The Butterfly Tree and The Animal Singers of Bremen. 

“It was a great thrill for me to stand in front of an entire orchestra and speak,” Carl in says. “Kent is a fine director of drama as well as music. I know he believes that Missa is a masterpiece, and his interpretation is going to be inspired by the vitality and humanity of the piece.” 

Carlin, who has been called “the first lady of Berkele y theat er,” was born in Boston, grew up in Chicago, attended Yale Drama School, and studied with Lee Strasberg in New York. An original member of Chicago’s Playwrights’ Theater, she has appeared on Broadway in From the Second City, in off-Broadway produc tions, w ith regional and summer theaters and in television and films. 

Her local career began in 1964, as a lecturer and acting teacher in the Drama Department at UC Berkeley. Since 1969, she has been a leading actress, director and teacher with the Amer ican Cons ervatory Theater, where she also served as Associate Artistic Director, heading up A.C.T.’s Plays-in-Progress program. She directed many plays in the Geary Theater—including Golden Boy, Hapgood and the premiere of Jane Anderson’s Food and Shelte r. She won 18 Bay Area Critics Circle and L.A. Dramalogue Awards. 

With Berkeley Rep, Carlin has acted, directed and served as Resident Director and Interim Artistic Director in the early 1980s. She has also directed and performed in several productions f or the Aur ora Theater in Berkeley’s downtown arts district. Her next project with Aurora is directing Conor McPherson’s “Dublin Carol.” 

Singing with the BSO at Zellerbach on Friday at 8 p.m. will be the Oakland Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Ma gen Solomon, with soloists Shana Blake Hill, soprano; Miriam Abramowitsch, mezzo-soprano; Bruce Sledge, tenor; and bass-baritone Philip Skinner. 

The concert will open with a piece by UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) compo ser-in-resi dence, Edmund Campion, featuring Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Steve Adams.