Arts & Events

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis: MTT Should Stick to the Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday June 11, 2015 - 08:32:00 PM

Kicking off the San Francisco Symphony’s three-week Beethoven festival, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Beethoven’s monumental Missa solemnis on Wednesday, June 10 at Davies Hall. Of the semi-staged production that he master-mined , MTT explains, “The mission of this performance is to create more space around the music allowing us to better understand the streams of Beethoven’s thought. By strategically placing specific vocal groups, using lighting to suggest underlying moods, and video to create environments and to suggest the design of the piece, we hope to reveal these many musical streams and the incredible impact of this work.”

Let’s just say that as a choreographer, MTT leaves a lot to be desired. His multi-media approach to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, replete with starburst videos (by Finn Ross), intrusive lighting effects (by David Finn), and near constant parading of soloists to and from all corners of the stage (at the misguided direction of James Darrah), ended up being highly distracting. When the work was over, one listener, who happened to go to school with MTT at USC, dismissed this entire Hollywood extravaganza as “atrocious.” Where the visuals are concerned, I quite agree that it was atrocious. Musically, however, any decent performance of the Missa solemnis – and, musically, at least, this was a decent performance – cannot help but make a huge, if somewhat impenetrable, impact.


Of the music itself, MTT acknowledges that, “Like many ambitious works written for large forces it can strangle on its own complexity and majesty. With so many people doing so many things at the same time and place, it can be difficult to follow the music’s many strands.” Granted. One needs to be well-versed in earlier liturgical music – by Schütz, Palestrina, Lassus, Bach, Handel, C.P.E. Bach, and even Mozart (his Coronation Mass) – to gain even the slightest appreciation of all that Beethoven attempts in his Missa solemnis. But the point is that all MTT’s multi-media theatrics complicated things unnecessarily, making us look now here, now there, and making us wonder what in the world was this or that video image or lighting effect or regrouping of the soloists and chorus members supposed to accomplish? I simply found myself wishing for an old-fashioned “stand and deliver” approach rather than be bombarded with distracting ‘special effects’. 

As the Missa solemnis gets underway, we hear a D major chord, forte, for woodwinds, horns, strings, and organ. This opening chord is twice repeated, playing on the rhythm of the word Kyrie. When the singers enter, they take up the same invocation, with the chorus intoning the chords and the soloists singing the lines of the woodwinds. Given that the Kyrie text comprises only three words, Beethoven simply employs these few words in dramatic fashion, thereby clueing us in to the great musical drama to come. 

In the Gloria, Beethoven has much more text to work with, and work he does! The Gloria opens with a mighty orchestral equivalent of a celebrant raising his arms in exultant joy. At the words, “Et in terra pax” and “adoramus te,” the orchestra subsides to a hush, then singers and orchestra embark on music of dizzying rhythms and brilliant colorings. On the word, “omnipotens,” Beethoven employs a fortissimo with trombones. When the fugue begins, everything speeds up, as the soloists add their voices to the assertion of God’s glory. Beethoven here displays the same mastery of the fugue he demonstrated (almost contemporaneously in his Grosse Fugue, Op. 133).  

Next comes the Credo, which MTT calls “one of Beethoven’s greatest creations.” It begins with a march-like motif based on the repetition of the phrase, “Credo! Credo!” There is an exultant, almost ecstatic quality to the assertion of belief in the requisite articles of faith. The words, “et incarnatus est,” are given in this performance to the voices of boys and men, while a solo flute hovers above sig-nifying the Holy Spirit. As the Credo text announces Christ’s crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, his death, burial, and resurrection, there is an almost operatic quality to the music. When, following the chorus’s joyous announcement of the resur-rection, the Credo begins its recapitulation, Beethoven speeds up the choral singing, which then explodes into a double fugue on the words, ”et vitam venturi” (“and the life to come”). Beethoven here attempts to give musical expression to the notion of eternal life to come.  

The Sanctus opens with adagio music in the style of such 16th century composers as Lassus and Palestrina. The Benedictus section begins with a lovely violin solo, played by Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who had earlier mysteriously darted offstage from his first violinist’s chair only to reappear in a spotlight at the right-hand mid-stage for his violin solo, which he played standing rather than sitting. (When Barantschik darted offstage, I wondered if he needed a bathroom break, so unusual was such a departure in mid-music. Oh well, just another distraction in a performance full of distractions.)  

The Agnus Dei section begins in adagio with the dark timbres of bassoons, horns and low-register strings. There follows a gentle “Dona nobis pacem” in a fervent prayer for peace. Then, amidst polyphonic music, Beethoven throws in a musical quotation from the “Hallelujah!” chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Now the pleas for peace, “pacem, pacem,” become ever more urgent. Distant trumpets from the Davies Hall balcony offer sounds of approaching war, and the cries of “pacem, pacem,” become ever more anguished. Finally, with one last “dona pacem,” Beethoven brings his much labored-over Missa solemnis to a surprisingly open-ended close. As Ernest Newman observed, “The conclusion of it all is enigmatic…. Does Beethoven really believe that the prayer will be answered, or does he leave it all as a kind of question mark projected upon the remote, indifferent sky?” 

Throughout this performance of the Missa solemnis, the soloists managed to sing beautifully in spite of being hauled hither and yon by stage director James Darrah. Joélle Harvey was a radiant-sounding soprano; Sasha Cooke was a sweet-voiced mezzo-soprano; Brandon Jovanovich was a stirring tenor; and Shenyang was a robust bass-baritone. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus under the direction of Ragnar Bohlin did outstanding work, as did the Pacific Boychoir under the direction of Kevin Fox. As for the conducting of Michael Tilson Thomas, let’s just say, once again, and emphatically, that he should stick to the music and give up his Hollywood pretensions, which only distract and detract from the music itself.