If I had been given the chance to choose a Beethoven program to attend, it would not have been this one with Missa Solemnis as the big Beethoven event. It even had another Missa in the first half; this one by Palestrina. Lucky for me that Michael Tilson Thomas is a gifted programmer and also takes his musical educator role so seriously as he does. The concert by the San Francisco Symphony and the SF Symphony Chorus was beautiful, complex, inspiring. I wanted it all to happen again immediately.
The Palestrina work opened the program. In fact, it had the effect of opening the whole symphony building. By its conclusion, it seemed that the roof of the hall had lifted up and opened as the walls expanded infinitely. This is an all choral piece, no accompanying orchestra; the San Francisco Symphony Chorus performed so well that they seemed to disappear, leaving pure sound to occupy the ever expanding space. This was the first SF Symphony performance of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass) from the late 1550s or early 1560s. The audience, eyes open with surprise, floated to intermission. The word “balance” appeared frequently in the program notes, and balance is the answer to put into earthly terms the sense of perfect peace achieved by this work.
With Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the SF Symphony, SF Symphony Chorus, soloists Laura Claycomb, soprano, Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, Michael Fabiano, tenor, Shenyang, bass-baritone, Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the listeners into a different world. Here the energy, tumult, desperation, exaltation of every breath of life for all time engulfs the audience. As prayers of praise, for forgiveness, and sanctifying blessings pour forth, the voice of the music is sometimes the human lost, sometimes the human awed and humbled, even the human sensing glory.
In the Gloria (Glory be to God on high, and on earth/peace to men of good will.) the rhythm goes from walking steps to a levitation into air. In Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) at the line Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine (Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord) a single violin comes between soloists and chorus in a piercingly beautiful line that sounds like sweetness and truth if they had a sound.
This is the work that Beethoven devoted the most time to create. It has the richness of his understanding of life and complex devotion. It reminds me that music is a physical thing that changes the air it moves through and so might change the heart that hears it. pictures:(L) SFS Beethoven Project logo (Rt)SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas