‘Mozart’s Great Mass’ with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore

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If I told you that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra may be the most dynamic classical music organization in our region, you’d probably expect me to prove it with a report on a daring program featuring unknown composers and innovative, possibly strange music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Painting by Barbara Krafft [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Painting by Barbara Krafft [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
But the fact that the BSO demonstrated this on Thursday night with what is, on paper, the most cliché of programs – the all-Mozart concert – is possibly even more impressive. With a simply stunning performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, the BSO delivered an impeccable reading of one of Mozart’s most timeless vocal-and-orchestra compositions.

And the fact that the orchestra achieved this by partnering with a guest conductor from Japan and a non-professional chorus that could put many a more experienced vocal ensemble to shame – the spectacularly well-prepared University of Maryland Concert Choir – just adds to the achievement even more.

Mozart’s Great Mass sits at a unique position in the composer’s output that is easy to confuse with other music. It dates from near the beginning of Mozart’s final decade in Vienna when he had moved away from – well, escaped from – his hometown of Salzburg. In this way it bookends the more familiar Requiem Mass, which was his final composition and whose story was memorialized in the sort-of-true, sort-of-not retelling in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

The Great Mass and the Requiem Mass do share one key characteristic: Mozart never finished either one. The Requiem lay unfinished for the obvious reason that Mozart died writing it. (And for the record: Yes it was commissioned by a strange visitor; yes Mozart came to believe he was writing it for his own funeral; no the visitor was not an agent for Antonio Salieri, rather he was an agent for a Count who liked to plagiarize music and pass it off as his own; no Salieri did not try to finish it, rather it was finished by a student of Mozart’s named Süssmayr.)

The earlier Great Mass lay unfinished because, most music historians believe, Mozart wasn’t being paid for it. He was composing it as a gift for his new wife Constanze, who then proceeded to freak out future soprano soloists in the Great Mass for all time by taking the solo line herself at the premiere of the “torso” of the Mass, after which Mozart moved on to paying projects.

But what a torso it is! While those who are familiar with the Latin text of the Roman Catholic mass will notice that the Great Mass is missing half of the Credo or creed, and all of the Agnus Dei or “lamb of God” sections, the remainder encompasses a sweeping variety of styles. Those range from arias for two different female vocalists to duets to counterpoint sections imitating the previous style of Bach and Handel to full choral harmonies against strings and woodwinds. It even includes unusual instrumental sections featuring not one, not two, but three trombones.

Conductor Masaaki Suzuki. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Conductor Masaaki Suzuki. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Guest conductor Masaaki Suzuki did not overload the music or in any way attempt to overwhelm the sound, electing to go with a moderate-sized orchestra and a chorus of exactly 52 singers which provided unusual clarity of musical lines and lyrics from the opening bar. He began the opening Kyrie with a steady but completely unhurried tempo, beautifully “squeezing” downbeats from the strings. That led directly to the chorus’s overlapping or “round”-like first lyric of Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) passed from the soprano to alto to tenor to bass sections and then handing off, on the line Christe eleison (“Christ have mercy”), to soprano soloist Simona Saturova.

Ms. Saturova was, quite simply, a wonder. Originally from Slovakia, she has, for a soprano, a slightly dark-hued tinge to her voice. Her combination of superb musical “chops” and that hint of mellowness to her voice fit the Great Mass to a tee. The solo line in the Kyrie contains two octave-and-a-half leaps – the kind of moment that makes you “jump in your seat” when you hear the run-of-the-mill operatic soprano sing it. Instead, Ms. Saturova clearly and cleanly sang the low note and then simply “placed” the high note with only the slightest variance in her tonal production and let the fantastic acoustics of The Music Center at Strathmore take over. The effect was sublime and, dare I say it, “religious” without drawing personal and egocentric attention to the soloist.

Simona Saturova. Photo courtesy of  Colbert Artists Management.
Simona Saturova. Photo courtesy of Colbert Artists Management.

Later in the Great Mass, Ms. Saturova sang the composition’s vocal centerpiece, an eight-minute aria on a single sentence beginning Et incarnatus est (“And was made incarnate”) that can be found in every advanced classical soprano’s songbook. Not only did Ms. Saturova perfectly execute her coloratura passages, but Et incarnatus est also involves three solo instrumental lines that Mozart ingeniously interweaves with the singer. These lines were perfectly and beautifully played by BSO principal flutist Emily Skala, principal bassoonist Fie Xie, and especially Assistant Principal Oboist Melissa Hooper. The mix of Ms. Saturova’s special brand of soprano and Ms. Hooper’s oboe playing was incredible.

Another section of the Great Mass involves a mezzo-soprano soloist singing Laudamus te (“We praise thee”) in a sprightly tune against some of Mozart’s cleverest instrumental writing in which the first and second violin sections repeatedly split apart and join together. British mezzo Joanne Lunn, who has a more traditionally “bright” voice than Ms. Saturova, nicely floated up to her high lines, although a slight quibble is that she made such a show of casually “tossing off” the final note of certain phrases that she practically clipped them off entirely. Still, Ms. Lunn, along with tenor soloist Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone soloist Kyle Ketelson, provided excellent support along with Ms. Saturova for the composition’s larger sections.

And yet, none of them were the top vocal star of the performance – an accolade that has to go to the University of Maryland Concert Choir, prepared by its director, Edward Maclary. Almost no superlative serves to fully describe the choir’s achievement here. Their harmonies and intonation were spot on from start to finish. Their tone was even and clear, with absolutely no “warbling” from the sopranos. Their Latin diction was excellent (although the almost too-good Strathmore acoustics have a way of making hard consonants especially percussive and “S” sounds especially “sibilant” – allowance has to be made for the fact that the BSO and the UMD chorus are performing this piece this week in two locations with very different acoustics).

The choir even achieved that rarest of goals – perfect balance between the men and the women. When the choir sang Qui tollis (“Who takes away sins”), a major portion of the Great Mass in eight-part harmony against a stringent orchestral accompaniment that requires tremendous concentration by the musicians for its endlessly repeated, angular rhythm, the performance reached the height of sheer professionalism.

Prior to the Great Mass, the BSO opened the concert with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, followed by Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 featuring a young German violinist, Augustin Hadelich. Mr. Hadelich’s sweet, bird-like tone made me long to take him off the international solo scene and place him in one of today’s trendy group of string quartets, where the violinists dig in so aggressively to the music that they can distort the sound of their fiddles. But then we would miss Mr. Hadelich’s incredibly innovative “cadenzas,” which are the unaccompanied part of concerto movements that, in Mozart’s day, were not written out by the composer and were left to the performer to improvise.

My favorite was Mr. Hadelich’s cadenza in the second movement, which ended with an amazing “double trill” starting on two different notes on two adjacent strings that sounded like it was perfectly parallel from start to finish. Until one of my violinist friends can demonstrate to me how on earth that’s done – if they can – I’m just going to have to chalk it up as one more spectacular moment in an absolutely superb concert.

Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Mozart’s Great Mass by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with the University of Maryland Concert Choir was performed on Thursday, March 12, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. The concert was repeated on Friday, March 13, 2015 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall – 1212 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD. It will be performed one more time tonight, Saturday, March 14, 2015 at 8 p.m. at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Purchase tickets for tonight’s performance online. For the BSO’s complete upcoming concert schedule, see their ticket calendar.

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