It is no secret that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been plagued with conductor issues in recent years. Maestro James Levine’s fragmented tenure seems almost to have put their “karma” into a strange place, and cancellations, replacements, and substitutions have become commonplace.
This week, their work already cut out for them with Beethoven’s crowning choral work, the Missa Solemnis in D Major, op. 123, the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus and soloists found themselves yet again in the position of looking for a conductor, and this time with fewer than 24 hours before the concert. The ailing Kurt Masur had already run several rehearsals when he realized he would be unable to fulfill his commitment. With so little time to replace him, management made a sensible and pragmatic decision and asked chorusmaster John Oliver to take the podium. This was one more star in Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg’s crown.
Although no one would want to fault anyone for such brave and generous efforts, it is not mere politeness to say the performance I heard on Thursday night had many satisfying elements, and Oliver mostly made sense of this demanding and complex score. The work unfurled efficiently; the few slightly hesitant transitions will doubtless improve with each subsequent performance. Oliver’s tempos were, on the whole, convincing, and his pacing was able to bring out the telling drama of this astounding music, particularly in the Gloria.
The stars of the evening were the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who sang with energy, commitment and brilliance. It’s hard to say who should be prouder here: the chorus of its conductor or the conductor of his chorus. The legendary vocal demands of this late masterpiece of Beethoven can and do intimidate most choirs, but the TFC met every challenge. The hushed dynamics at the “crucifixus” in the Credo were among the most beautiful moments of the evening, and several of the fugues, notably the “Et vitam venturi saeculi,” also in the Credo, were also highlights. The chorus sang from memory, as is their impressive custom.
Malcolm Lowe’s violin solo in the Benedictus was sublime, perfectly capturing the sense of the text “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”; the melody floated down as on a cloud, from heaven.
The vocal soloists, soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, tenor Simon O’Neill, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, were well matched and each impressive in his or her own way, with DeYoung a slight standout, both vocally and in her presence onstage.
Oliver deserves great credit for pulling together all these magnificent musicians and for making sense of this searching and masterful work on such short notice. One wished only that he could have seemed to enjoy himself more, but perhaps he had too important an assignment simply making the music work, which it did. The great Beethoven, himself having faced so many daunting health challenges near the end of his life when he wrote the Missa, would have been unusually pleased at the strength from adversity which this evening represented.
Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. Active as organ solo artist and guest conductor, he has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. His website is www.brianjonesmusic.com.