Similar in grandeur and majesty, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and “Missa Solemnis” (Solemn Mass), both from 1824, are virtually at opposite ends of the composer’s hit parade. The Ninth is performed constantly, but the Mass comes along once or twice in an orchestra’s lifetime.
The 80-minute work demands a full orchestra, large chorus and epxert vocal and instrumental soloists.
Even after nearly two centuries, Beethoven’s innovations with harmonies and tempos are daunting.
The San Francisco Symphony closes its 99th season this week with the Mass; so rare are its performances that the symphony’s well-experienced chorus master Ragnar Bohlin will prepare it for the first time.
“What I know,” Bohlin says, “is that it is wonderful music, amazingly inventive and rich. Also a challenge to any chorus with its high tessitura and the amount of music to sing.”
Musicologist Donald Francis Tovey has said “Not even Bach or Handel can show a greater sense of space and of sonority. There is no earlier choral writing that comes so near to recovering some of the lost secrets of the style of Palestrina. There is no choral and no orchestral writing, earlier or later, that shows a more thrilling sense of the individual color of every chord, every position, and every doubled third or discord.”
For Michael Tilson Thomas, who will lead these performances, acquaintance with the work goes back to years at UCLA when he played second oboe under the baton of Lukas Foss, “who said things like, ‘Let Beethoven take you into his sweaty embrace.’”
“It’s a fascinating piece,” MTT says, “as Beethoven seems to be struggling with the issue of whether it is possible to make contrapuntal music as passionate and emotionally expressive as other forms of music, similar to what Schubert dealt with in the last years of his life.”
Soprano Elizabeth Blodgett says she is impressed by the “deep spirituality of a man driven to despair by his profound deafness, culminating in a piece of unbelievable depth and passion.”
Bass Chung-Wai Soong calls the Mass “a virtuosic masterpiece.” The veteran chorus member has been looking forward to singing the Mass for many years, and hopes it will be kept in the repertoire.
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday; 6:30 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $35 to $140
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org