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Slavonic Mass Appeal

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/07/2009 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183
Claude Debussy: Nocturnes
Leoš Janácek: Glagolitic Mass

Measha Brueggergosman (Soprano), Nancy Maultsby (Mezzo-Soprano), Stuart Skelton (Tenor), Raymond Aceto (Bass)
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Robert Porco (Director), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor and Music Director)

Franz Welser-Möst (© Roger Mastroianni)

When the Cleveland Orchestra traveled to New York early this week, they made every moment count. This fine ensemble gave three different concerts during their stay, paraded out some excellent soloists, and showed off the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (a very unique organization as you shall read).

Not even stopping for an evening’s rest, the wind section, and a few string players traveled to the 92St Y to perform two chamber works by Janácek, then returned to Carnegie Hall, where, last night, they finished with the massive Glagolitic Mass.

Only one non-operatic piece by Janácek can compare in accessibility to this Slavonic church work, and that is Janácek’s popular Sinfonietta. In fact, the long orchestral introduction and its repeat at the end both liberally quote from that work, which had been written two years before. Other than that, this piece could be compared perhaps to Berlioz’ Mass or even Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, both in scope, size, sheer theatricality and immediate effect on any audience.

(A note of trivia: both Janácek and Beethoven dedicated their masses to an Archbishop of Olmütz, for reasons unknown.)

The Cleveland’s conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, has ensembles so well disciplined that the performance was ardent, emotional and directly beautiful. Much of this could be attributed to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, which not only sung with what seemed emotional outbursts, but at times, gave us aural rainbows of sounds ascending and descending from the different voices.

This chorus is one of the few professionally trained all-volunteer choruses attached to an orchestra (our New York Phil “outsources” its work to several choruses), and after 57 years, they seem in perfect synch with the orchestra.

We were treated once again to the Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman (the name is a combination of herself and her husband), who was as dramatic as ever. Wearing a tangerine-colored gown, she didn’t simply rise from her seat, but seemed to float onto the stage. Her voice was sharp and clear, especially with the great Gloria with the chorus.

The rest of the vocal quartet sung not with subtlety—this is not a work of nuance—and tenor Stuart Skelton was certainly outstanding with a plangent, smooth incisive voice. The organ solos were interesting, but Carnegie Hall’s organ has a synthetic quality which didn’t deserve to be near such a blazingly natural performance.

It was of course the highlight of a diverse evening, starting with Mozart’s 25th Symphony. The strings were abbreviated a bit, though hardly 18th Century style, and the conducting was so smooth and clear that one almost lost the perception of its high tragedy.

The Debussy Nocturnes was spatially original. About half of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus of women, was used. One section stood at stage left behind the orchestra, the other group at stage right. Thus in the final-movement Sirens, the voices didn’t come forward like a chorus, but resonated from side to side, as if moving with a boat.

That was effective enough. But the single most impressive section of the evening was the opening Clouds. Maestro Welser-Möst seemed to keep the orchestra somehow remote from the audience. Not literally, of course, but he created a space, an emptiness of, what Debussy called, “The slow solemn motion of the clouds”. The composer needed no minimalist tricks to paint indiscernible alterations. All he needed was his mastery of mood, single chords spaced out into infinity, and an orchestra like the Cleveland to make the ephemeral so memorable.

Harry Rolnick



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