What: An all-Beethoven concert
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: Friday and Saturday, January 23 and 24, 2015
If the 1807 premiere of Beethoven's "Mass in C major" at the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy had been as good as the performance we got from David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Friday night, the prince might have been less of a jerk with the composer afterwards.
[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview and the SLSO program notes.]
As it was, the shoddy effort by an ill-prepared and apathetic chorus left the prince baffled. "My dear Beethoven," he remarked, "what have you written there?" Beethoven was not amused, and it would be a number of years before the work began to gain a following.
Even so, it has never gotten the same attention as Beethoven's other major choral works—especially the earlier "Christus am Ölberge," ("Christ on the Mount of Olives") and the later "Missa Solemnis"—and this weekend's performances were the first by the SLSO. Which makes the high quality of what we heard Friday night that much more impressive.
The chorus carries most of the burden in the mass, and Amy Kaiser's forces were more than equal to the occasion, displaying that mix of power and finesse that I have come to expect from them. This was especially apparent in the "Credo," the longest and most elaborate of the five sections and the dramatic heart of the work. It's a remarkably exuberant declaration of faith from a man who was not necessarily all that devout, and the symphony choristers gave it a thrilling reading. They were equally at home in the more lyrical passages, especially the hushed "donna nobis pacem" that concludes the sometimes stormy "Agnus dei."
The score calls for four soloists, but they serve a mostly ancillary role, adding decoration and emphasis. That said, we had a quartet of very solid voices here in the persons of soprano Kate Reimann, mezzo-soprano Johanna Nordhorn, tenor Keith Boyer, and bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl. All four are chorus members as well as familiar figures on the local opera and concert scene, and acquitted themselves well.
There was wonderful work from the orchestra here also. There are some important and very exposed solo passages in the "Agnus Dei," and they came through with wonderful clarity Friday night.
The other big Beethoven piece on the program was the genial "Symphony No. 8" in F major, Op. 83. Written at the same time as the more popular and flashy Seventh, the symphony is, in the words of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Christopher H. Gibbs, "a shorter, lighter, and far more good-humored work than its imposing neighbors, the relentless Seventh and the towering Ninth." Listening to this witty and playful music, it's hard to believe that it was written at a time when the composer was embroiled in an ugly and ultimately futile quarrel with his brother over the latter's love life.
Here, as in the "Mass" Mr. Robertson appeared to have incorporated some of the ideas of the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) set into his approach to "big band" Beethoven. Aside from the tympani (which appeared to be reproductions of the kind of smaller drum Beethoven would have recognized) the instruments were all modern and the ensemble was larger than it would have been in Beethoven's time, but the performances had the kind of snap and drive that I tend to associate with guys like Roger Norrington. I have heard this same influence in the past—most recently in his Mozart "Jupiter" last week. As a fan of the HIP approach, I'm all for it.
Mr. Robertson seemed especially in tune with the whimsical spirit of the Eighth symphony. I'm all for that as well.
The concerts opened with a truly rara avis, the "Three Equali for Four Trombones," written at the request of Franz Xaver Glöggl, the music director of the Linz Cathedral, for an All Soul's Day celebration in 1812. They constitute, in the words of New York Philharmonic annotator James M. Keller, "one of the most curious items in [Beethoven's] entire catalogue." The three short chorales gave four members of the SLSO trombone section a rare chance to take the spotlight, and they delivered the goods.
As an old trombone player myself I am, I suppose, a bit biased, but I must admit that it was a pleasure to hear the precision with which Timothy Myers, Amanda Stewart, Jonathan Reycraft, and bass trombonist Gerard Pagano (who could easily win a G.B Shaw look-like contest) played and even breathed in unison. Yes, I know the two go together, but it's still marvelous to see.
Next at Powell Hall: The regular season continues next week as Nicholas McGegan conducts the orchestra in a program of music by the Johann Sebastian Bach family on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., January 30 and 31. Soloists are Andrea Kaplan and Jennifer Nitchman, flutes; Jelena Dirks and Philip Ross, oboe; Asako Kuboki and Ann Fink, violin; and Melissa Brooks, cello. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.