ArtsATL > Music > ASO’s supreme chorus turns 40, celebrates with Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass”

ASO’s supreme chorus turns 40, celebrates with Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass”

UPDATE 10/19: A spokeswoman for the ASO called to say that Robert Spano has changed the program for this week and at Carnegie Hall: Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” will replace Ligeti’s “Atmosphères.” The reason? Carnegie’s stage is smaller than Atlanta’s Symphony Hall stage, and making room for the chorus doesn’t allow enough space for the large string section in the Ligeti. In other news, Spano’s opening fanfare, composed to celebrated his decade as ASO music director and originally penciled in for this week’s Atlanta concerts, has been postponed.

Last month, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus turned 40.

Sprung fully formed from the head of choral genius Robert Shaw on September 24, 1970 — so goes the legend — the chorus has been near the pinnacle of international symphonic choruses ever since. Continuity has been a key factor, with the current chorus director, Norman Mackenzie, a former assistant to Shaw. Although every one of the singers must re-audition every year — there is no tenure — six of the choristers have been there from the start: John Cooledge, Charlie Cottingham, Nick Jones, Cheryl Lower, Stephen Reed and Kendric Smith. The chorus is heard on 14 of the ASO’s 27 Grammy Award-winning recordings.

Under Robert Shaw, the ASO Chorus performed with evangelical zeal and with churchy blue robes to match.

This week and next, the ASO Chorus will celebrate its ruby anniversary in its own humble fashion. The all-volunteer, 200-voice chorus and orchestra, conducted by Robert Spano, will perform Leos Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass” in Atlanta and at a concert in New York.

Carnegie Hall uses the chorus’ reputation to help sell tickets: “Since its debut in 1970, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus has become the best-known choral group in the U.S., and the orchestra under Spano has become a welcome guest.” (Eat your hearts out, Mormon Tabernacle Choir.) After the two warm-up concerts in Symphony Hall, the Atlantans will perform in Carnegie’s “Great American Orchestras” series, alongside the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and James Levine’s Boston Symphony in Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Distinguished company indeed.

And Spano eagerly bills the concerts as a highlight of his entire ASO season. The program includes Spano favorites, all landmarks by Eastern Europeans. Gyorgy Ligeti’s shimmering and gorgeous “Atmosphères” is a piece of sound-sculpture that was used to accompany the mysterious, epoch-altering monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Bela Bartok’s dangerous and libidinous suite from the ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” depicts prostitution, robbery and murder. It’s all there in the music.

Robert Spano conducts the ASO and Chorus at Carnegie Hall in 2008. For the chorus, black formal wear is now the fashion. Photo by Chris Lee.

The “Glagolitic Mass” — earthy, fiery, on the edge of propriety — is a relative rarity in the concert hall. Sounding like music by a mad artist, it premiered in 1927 when the inimitable composer was 72, romantically infatuated with a married woman not quite half his age (although the love was probably unrequited) and was sprinting into his creative spring. It’s impossible to separate the work’s genesis from its performances. The 40-minute Mass was composed for the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence and in commemoration of the ninth-century Slav missionaries who brought Christianity to Moravia, which was Janacek’s native province (now part of the Czech Republic).

The two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, translated the Bible into Old Church Slavonic and invented a “Glagolitic” alphabet to write it down. Janáček was a stickler to get the extinct language and pronunciations correct in his Mass; chorus master Mackenzie, likewise, may be counted on to extract clear diction from his singers, however tongue-twisting the language. And like most of the great choral literature, the ASO and Chorus have recorded it with Robert Shaw, the titan of 20th-century choral conductors, for the Telarc label.

By coincidence, the ASO performed the “Glagolitic Mass” under Shaw for the chorus’ 20th anniversary. Shaw loved to write to his choristers analytical post-rehearsal letters and also silly poems. Here’s one written for the 1990 anniversary, when the “Glagolitic” was on their music stands:

Lift voices and glasses – we’ll all have a blast!

Our Symphony Chorus is twenty at last!

(Though what about twenty is special or dear,

At least to this senior, is not very clear.)

Much more to the point, and well worthy of note,

It’s only one more ’til we all get the vote! ….

And even the Janáček, wild as it seems,

And much as he scoffs at traditional means,

In ancient Schlavonic could be a success

If only the parts weren’t a h’yelluvam’yess!

So what! if we’re still not entitled to vote,

Dear People, take heart! It ain’t all that she wrote!

It’s “Prosit!” and “Skol!” and a far better thing!

For at least, O my friends, we’re entitled to sing!

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