ArtsATL > Music > ASO review: Runnicles leads a gripping, helter-skelter “Missa Solemnis”

ASO review: Runnicles leads a gripping, helter-skelter “Missa Solemnis”

Why we’re lucky to live in Atlanta: when conductor Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus program Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” they deliver at such an exalted level that you can’t imagine it being done better anywhere.

Thanks to the late Robert Shaw, who revered the work and conducted it often, the “Missa Solemnis” is imprinted on the ASO’s collective consciousness. Originally planned to commemorate his friend and patron’s elevation to archbishop, Beethoven’s score follows the Mass Ordinary in structure but grew into a super-sized offering to humanity, an emotionally and philosophically contradictory work that seems to ask provocative questions but provides no answers. The composer, by the way, had been deaf for 15 years.

The ASO returned to the “Missa” Thursday night in an exalted performance. It will be repeated Saturday in Symphony Hall.

By the short recapitulation in the opening “Kyrie” section, just a few minutes into the evening, Runnicles’ deliberate pacing and unflinching concentration had made it feel as if our journey had already taken us over the horizon of the known world — our land, our homes, were no longer visible. We were out in open ocean, an exhilarating and scary feeling. (Photos by Jeff Roffman.)

The band was tight. The ASO played on fire in the “Gloria” section, agile and at full fury, while Norman Mackenzie’s 200-voice chorus sang with crisp diction and firm, almost teardrop-shaped tones. It’s eerie to hear that many people sing that cleanly, that warmly, that loudly.

But the chorus, enamored of its own power, often threatens to overshadow a performance, which can be an awesome spectacle but not always the most convincing interpretation. Conductors are not always successful in balancing the forces on stage. To Runnicles’ credit — and Mackenzie’s — the chorus was almost ideally calibrated Thursday night.

The deluxe vocal quartet blended exquisitely, despite sounding like three Wagnerians and an Evangelist. American soprano Christine Brewer and Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill vocalized as if two sides of the same voice. Brewer’s silken soprano had a plush darkness, while Cargill had a thick, veiled lower range but a brighter, soprano-ish top. Eric Owens’ gritty, oaken, textured bass-baritone was equally charismatic and able to cut through Symphony Hall’s miserable acoustic.

But where the other three had the Wagnerian vocal heft to sing over the orchestra in the most heated moments, tenor Thomas Cooley, a noted Bach interpreter, was smaller and more “churchy” in voice. In exposed moments, he nevertheless sang with radiant, tender elegance.

Runnicles was the star of it all. He never shied away from Beethoven’s helter-skelter detours that seem part of some alternative narrative, a storyline that’s not part of the Latin texts or the rites of the church. This Mass can seem closer in spirit to the Beatles’ White Album than to the respectful tradition codified by Haydn and Mozart. One key passage is a lucid hallucination built off the line “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” — “And I wait for the resurrection of the dead.” Aspiring rock musicians and hip-hop producers looking to shake up the world and diss their elders might consider studying this passage. It’s an extreme example of Beethoven’s radical creativity. But then moments later, closing the “Credo” section, the quartet’s “Amen” was imperishably beautiful, suspended in air.

Concertmaster David Coucheron, new to the ASO this season, got out of his chair for his extended solo meditation off the “Praeludium.” His lyrical phrasing with the four singers is now burned into memory as one of the highlights of the season. With his fluid virtuosity, honeyed tone and heartfelt expression, he sets a high standard for the other string principals to follow. (Indeed, the discrepancy between Coucheron’s playing and, say, that of principal violist Reid Harris — who performed his own solo last week, weakly — is so glaring that it’s now impossible to ignore.)

Runnicles’ unified, romanticized account lasted 81 minutes by my watch, a full 10 minutes longer than a favorite on CD, a period-instrument version conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. But the ASO’s traversal was utterly gripping throughout. At the end, the performers received a sincere standing ovation and multiple curtain calls … but without the lusty, red-meat cheers that an equally superb performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would have elicited. As Runnicles says, “the ‘Missa Solemnis’ holds up a mirror to us. It leaves an inconclusive feeling at the end.”

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