Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mostly Mozart Festival

As I await my flight from NY to VA, I thought I'd share a bit about the closing concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. I was in the tenor section of the Concert Chorale of New York, one of the city's premiere professional choruses, prepared by my friend and colleague, James Bagwell, who is one of the best choral conductors in the country. We met on Tuesday for 5 hours to learn the work, rehearsed with the inspiring conductor and Music Director of the Festival, Louis Langrée Wednesday, then rehearsed twice with the orchestra, Thursday and Friday, in advance of Friday and Saturday evening performances. This gig is typical of the NY pro choral scene, where 40 or so singers show up, read and rehearse a piece in a couple of days, and perform it that weekend.

Mozart's C Minor Mass was the centerpiece of this final concert of this year's Festival, whose theme was "Loss and Transfiguration." The Mozart was paired with Stauss' autumnal masterpiece, Metamorphosen, a haunting, rhapsodic elegy for 23 solo strings. First, a digression on Richard Strauss (1864-1949):

Written at the end of WWII--and the octogenarian composer's career--the work reflects an artist's despair at the devastations of the war--in particular the bombings of theaters in Munich, Dresden, and Vienna (for Americans to empathize, cultural institutions like the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall would have to be destroyed in bombings, as the program annotator, David Wright wrote). Yet this work exists in the matrix of its composers complicated life. The conductor, Louis Langrée, opined in the final dress rehearsal that Strauss here expressed his remorse for his naive complicity with the regime (he was the chair of the Reich's music division for a short period). That is a topic for a dissertation on cultural politics. Langrée also shared an appropriate poetic link from T.S. Eliot, the last of his Four Quartets, Little Gidding: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." (he did not cite the source, but this famous quatrain has long been a personal favorite). It is an appropriate connection, even if the title, Metamorphosen, refers to Goethe's work as both a poet and scientist. Wright quoted Goethe's poem "Niemand wird sich selber kennen" (No one will ever know one's self) as "A dark and prophetic meditation on civilized people's capacity for evil."
Metapmorphosen is a Wagnerian adagio that unfolds in a continuous web of melody for 25 minutes, quoting the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica symphony and referencing the composers own works. It is a fitting testament to a great and complex composer.

Mozart's C Minor Mass reminds me of Rilke's great sonnet, "On the archaic torso of Apollo"--a poem which describes a broken, headless, trunk of a statue of the Greek Sun god that still manages to reflect the brilliance and power of its subject. It ends with another famously memorable couplet: "For there is no place that does not see you:/You must change your life." That quote has a double meaning for me--Mozart's Mass, like his Requiem, remained unfinished, a "trunk" if you will; great art, like the works on this program, move and inspire one to reflection, consideration, and that can literally be life-changing.

Anyway, the C Minor Mass is a great work. And unlike the Requiem, it really does not need to be finished. It is in the 18th century style of a "cantata" mass, which means the central movements, the Gloria and Credo, are separated into individual movements by subdivisions in the text. Whereas a Missa Brevis would have a single movement Gloria, Mozart gives us a 7 movement tour de force of dramatic vocal writing and scoring. Haydn's 6 great masses and Beethoven's Mass in C and Missa Solemnis both follow this model.

Coming in the middle of his brief career in 1782 (Mozart lived from 1756-1791), it contains some of the best music for soprano he wrote (fittingly, as his wife, Constanze, was the soloist in the 1783 premiere in Salzburg). And not just for one soprano, but two (the second soprano part is often sung by a mezzo-soprano). The soprano deut, "Domine Deus" contains vocal fireworks and gymastics where the pair trade off sequential melismas and acrobatic upward leaps. Listening to that duet would be like watching two Olympic gymnasts--Nastia Liukin and He Kexin, say--on the uneven bars doing virtually the same routine AT THE SAME TIME ("Yeah, I got your triple-twirly-tucky-twist right here!"). Good stuff.

This Mass is also central for its use of Baroque-inspired counterpoint. We know Mozart studied the works of Bach and Handel, in particular the former's motets and the latter's oratorios. Both the Cum Sancto Spiritu which closes the Gloria, and the Osanna sections of the Sanctus and Benedictus contain fugues inspired by the Baroque masters. But it is not just the counterpoint which reflects a Baroque influence. The grandeur of the French Baroque is present in the double-dotted rhythms of the Qui tollis--an intense, double-chorus plea, which Langrée conducted with remarkable passion and intensity. Mozart exploited the tensions in the musical language of his forefathers, while presaging the harmonic innovations of the Romantic period. The Gratias movement opens with a sustained c # dimished chord--not just one tritone, but two (the "devil in music" as the dimished fifth interval was called, and therefore prohibited, in earlier music) This opening packs an added punch when the basses enter in the next bar with a dissonant d pedal. If that is too theoretical for any non-musicians with time enough on their hands to read blogs (LOL!), suffice it to say it is a bold and striking opening, all the more surprising given the text ("We give thank to Thee")

The truncated aspect of the work appears in the Credo, where only two movements of the text exist (Bach's B Minor Mass divides the Credo into 9 sections). Following an exuberant chorus, Mozart wrote one of the most sublime arias in all of music. "Et incarnatus est" is a pastoral nativity scene and chamber quartet for the soprano, flute, oboe, and bassoon. The four soloists share the melodic material in an interwoven fabric of felicitous beauty. The cadenza Mozart wrote for this colorful quartet is an extraordinary coda to one of his greatest individual movements.

The Sanctus--double chorus with an exuberant fugue for the "Osanna"--is scored for the colorful timbre of the wind-band (which includes woodwinds and brass instruments). The Benedictus is for the solo vocal quartet, and concludes with a reprise of the Osanna fugue, and as it stands, is a fitting close. The brooding Kyrie which opens the piece and establishes the sombre key of c minor metamorphoses through the 45 minutes of music Mozart composed to end in the sunlit key of C major.

The Mass has not been as popular as the Requiem for several reasons. Not least of which is the cult of mystery surrounding the composer's "swan-song" exploited in the play and film "Amadeus." That Mozart's pupil and assistant, Süssmayr, completed the work far below the standards of his master has not had an adverse effect on its popularity--testimony to the Requiem's staying power. Arguably a more difficult work to execute, and in my humble opinion a superior one, the C Minor Mass deserves at least an equal place.

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