Tag Archives: A Perfect Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Cappella Amsterdam

A Perfect Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Cappella Amsterdam

Hola. A resident of my former home city, the District of Columbia, sent me the following e-mail which I thought I’d respond to here with his permission:

“Hola former DC resident. I was born and raised here in the District and I think we were once neighbors. You wrote somewhere that you lived in Foggy Bottom. Small world, that’s where I’ve lived most of my life. I’m writing to ask you a favor, if you don’t mind. You wrote about that memorable concert way back when of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis over at the Kennedy Center with the University of Maryland Chorus with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Sorry I forget the conductor’s name. You know what? I was there for that concert so I know what you’re talking about. Wow! What a performance. The memory of that evening has stayed with me all these years. I had not heard Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis before and the UMD Chorus brought tears to my eyes that night, no kidding. They gave a stunning performance. It’s depressing to think they were liquidated, some info I also learned from reading your blog. Anyhoo, do you know if those performances were recorded and how I’d go about getting a copy? Thought you might know having been in the business. Or I was wondering if you might be able to recommend a performance of the Missa Solemnis that you especially like and that may be just as good as the Maryland Chorus performance?…..is that possible? :-) I could spend hours on Youtube going through every performance on there, but I was hoping to avoid that and have you direct me to a performance you especially like. I’ve read about your orchestral choral background and know you were in the UMD Chorus and Choral Arts Society of Washington. Wow! You were at the top of your field so I know the performance you recommend would be the best which is why I thought I’d bother you by asking. Maybe you could talk a little about what was it like for you singing in the Kennedy Center and at Wolf Trap? Much appreciate it and thank you for taking the time to read my e-mail. Looking forward to hearing from you.—Kevin”

Hola Kevin, no bother at all. I love talking about music with someone as interested as yourself. I don’t get the chance to talk about music or my background — most people glaze-over and looked dis-interested; they have absolutely no interest in it — and the only time I talk about my background is on pink barrio. Other classically-trained musicians can probably relate to that. So that’s why it was refreshing and a pleasure to get your e-mail. Muchas gracias for that and for your very kind words. I appreciate that. I feel very fortunate to have accomplished what I did and to have been given those opportunities, making at least two musical goals/dreams come true. And the same goes for my membership later with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

If I remember correctly, Maryland and the Concertgebouw gave three performances of the Missa Solemnis over three consecutive nights. None of the live performances in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in those days were recorded, or recorded at all for that matter, which is something I could never understand. When I was in the Choral Arts Society of Washington and later the University of Maryland Chorus there were never any microphones hanging above the Concert Hall stage to record our performances. I remember being frustrated about that because I so much wanted to have a recording of our performances. There were some really legendary performances given in those days, and they were lost as soon as the performance ended. I couldn’t understand it really because I knew that up the East Coast in Boston, WGBH-Boston was recording for PBS performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New England Conservatory Chorus and then later with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (not one of my favourites today, I might add), as well as the Boston Pops Orchestra from Symphony Hall in Boston. One would have thought that DC’s WGMS (known as “Washington’s Good Music Station, AM-Bethesda/FM-Washington”) would have been contracted to do the same thing and record performances from the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, but that was not the case.

To answer your question about performing at the Kennedy Center and at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts: Walking out on the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap stages for the first time was really thrilling for me, and something I had wanted to do for some time. I had just graduated from a Conservatory of Music in the area, and in part, getting to do what I wanted to do with my music. But after awhile I did burn out — which is fairly common with symphonic orchestral choristers — because of the busy/demanding performance schedule which took lots of time and none of us were paid. (Today, very few Symphony Choruses are paid. The only two I know of are the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and about 20% of the choristers of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.) In all three: the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, I sang with some really wonderful choristers, some wonderful people and we had that bond of our shared-interest in symphonic choral music, and we became friends and often talked music when we were together. None of them were stuck on themselves or the least bit arrogant — very friendly people and most of them were Queer and we also shared that common bond — despite having the privilege and honour of being in some of the best Orchestra Choruses in the US. None of the people I knew were like — what I call — the Classical Music Snots. Those dreadful people. Aren’t they the basura who wanted to be a professional musician but didn’t possess the talent, and who were kicked out of Conservatories and Schools of Music? They serve as know-it-all armchair critics for any and all varieties of musicians. They pick at this and pick at that. Can’t stand them! I don’t like being critical of other musicians because I know what is involved for them to master their art and the “stress of performance” (especially solo performance) and the only time I’m critical of anyone is usually with a Symphony Chorus or choristers who sing with vibrato because vibrato prevents perfect intonation in a Chorus.

Before I give you my recommendation, there are a couple of stories (some chisme/gossip) connected with those performances. I’ve told them before in another article, but they’ll be new and maybe interesting to first-time readers:

During the choral season you’re talking about Kevin, I was in the Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) and I remember Norman Scribner, the Founder/Director of the CASW, saying during one of our rehearsals, “a Chorus which shall remain nameless is performing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this week at the Kennedy Center.” He was referring to the UMD Chorus. I thought it was funny the way Norman announced it, but I later came to realise it had to do with the superb Choral Arts Society’s one-way jealousy of the superb 150-voice University of Maryland Chorus (also known as The Maryland Chorus) having so many performance engagements in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at that time — especially with the National Symphony Orchestra (the resident orchestra of the Kennedy Center), under conductor Antal Doráti (Doráti preferred The Maryland Chorus) — and for Maryland to get this very prized engagement with the visiting Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam was very special indeed.

Then, it was either at that same rehearsal or another rehearsal that I heard some chisme/gossip. A chorister in the back row during our break was telling the choristers around him in a rather loud manner about something that had supposedly happened. He said, “Did you hear that Paul Traver stormed into the Kennedy Center and demanded that his Maryland Chorus perform with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam?” (Which they did do.) It was either for the Missa Solemnis or on another occasion for Beethoven’s Ninth, one of the signature pieces of The Maryland Chorus. They performed that many, many times over the years with (inter)national orchestras.

This was written about them on their 36th performance of the Ninth in the late 1980s:

National Symphony Orchestra & University of Maryland Chorus

“…an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was presented to an overflow audience Saturday night at Wolf Trap. This excellence, however, was a last-minute development, and primary credit goes not to the National Symphony, which was the orchestra for the occasion, but to the University of Maryland Chorus, which came to the orchestra’s rescue. The Chorus — one of the best — celebrated its 20th anniversary and its 36th Beethoven Ninth by singing the final movement as well as I have ever heard it sung, live or on records.”
Source: The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan

But after talking with Dr Traver, Founder and Director of the UMD Chorus, a number of years later about these performances, what I had heard at Choral Arts rehearsal was merely rumour. I asked him how Maryland got that engagement with the RCO Amsterdam. He told me that the University of Maryland Chorus had been recommended to conductor Claudio Abbado by Margaret Hillis, Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Abbado had called her asking for her recommendation for a Chorus in the DC area for these Missa Solemnis performances at the Kennedy Center. She had worked with Dr Traver and The Maryland Chorus during a choral workshop at the University of Maryland at College Park, and she recommended them to Abbado. Quite nice of her.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is one of my favourite choral works. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to perform it although I know it so well — I was prepared to perform it had one of the Orchestra Choruses I sang with programmed it — but I feel as though I did perform it, if that makes sense. Kevin, I think it’s fair to say that The MD Chorus “owned” the Missa Solemnis when you and I heard them perform it.

Like you, I remember that performance to this day. It was thrilling. I think part of the review of their performance the following day was: “Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus was glorious throughout.”—Washington Post Classical Music Reviewer.) I remember that a friend of mine who worked in the classical records store over in Georgetown remarked, “That Maryland Chorus can sing the shit out of choral music!” Yes, and their performance was equal to the one I have to recommend to you, Kevin, I’m pleased to say. My recommendation is based on the following:

1. Choral Excellence
2. Orchestral Excellence
3. The Soloists and Conductor

This Chorus, Cappella Amsterdam, reminds me of a smaller Maryland Chorus. So I recommend this performance from Amsterdam with the Cappella Amsterdam Chorus and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century conducted by Daniel Reuss (who is known as a choral director and very enjoyable to watch him conduct). This Chorus is absolutely splendid. Superbly prepared. I have nothing but positive things to say about them. The same for the orchestra.

And let me say outright here and this is specifically directed at the Classical Music Snots (CMS) who might show up here: No one needs to write a comment such as this: “The Missa Solemnis conducted by [big-name conductor] is much better than this performance that you’re recommending. It has [big-name soloists].”

Then go watch that one with the big-named conductor and big-named soloists! Go away! I don’t care what you think, pendejo. Kevin asked for my opinion, not yours. But The Classical Music Snots usually write that tripe. They love to name-drop as if it makes them look like such (self-appointed) “philosophical” snooty authorities (Dahling). They usually write in pretentious language trying to put on airs, desperate to impress somebody. From my unfortunate experience with the CMS, they are there for the soloists of the performance — as if they think this piece is opera when it’s not; it’s a Mass setting — and they couldn’t care less about the Chorus from my experience.

I’m well aware that most people are not “choral people” (I’m a choral person; it’s my background and part of my training) so even for major symphonic choral works they go on about the conductor and soloists. For a major symphonic choral work, the name of the conductor is one of the last things I look for. And that’s because with many pieces, it doesn’t matter who the conductor is they all sound roughly the same; they’re using the same scores. (With some of the finest orchestras, they play without a conductor). I’m not into dropping the name of big-name/international conductor to try to pump myself up like the Classical Music Snot trash do. I can’t stand them. They ruin classical music for so many people because of their pretentiousness, their snootiness and having to nit-pick other musician’s performances to death as if waiting for them to make a mistake, often critiquing them measure-by-measure. Find yourself a new hobby (maybe flower arranging), los pendejos! I’ve listened to some of the performances they’ve (Classical Music Snots) recommended and would have written them a comment in response such as, “Obviously, no one has an ear for choral excellence and that’s not the reason you’re watching this symphonic choral work, because that Chorus in that performance that you’re going on about needs work. They have bad intonation, their diction sucks, wobbling soprano voices, cracking tenor voices in their upper register, just for starters.” And yet you’re calling this the best performance, Mr/Ms Classical Music Snot?

In this performance, Daniel conducts this work pretty much the way everybody else does that I’ve heard for decades. Someone left a terribly disrespectful comment regarding the Chorus, which AVROTROS Klassiek has since deleted. He wrote: “The least heard from the Chorus the better.” What? To that idiot, the Missa Solemnis was all about the soloists and the orchestra.

Mi amigo/My friend asked me: There’s not a thing you would improve on in this performance from Amsterdam, if you were the Chorus Director? If I were being nit-picky, I could use more consonants from the Chorus. It could have been the mic’ing or maybe Daniel preferred the consonants to be a bit quieter. Some Chorus Directors as well as conductors do. It depends upon the piece they’re performing. For example, conductor Antal Doráti did that on one occasion with The MD Chorus for our performance of the Mozart Requiem with the NSO. Dr Traver had prepared us for the Mozart with the usual “Maryland Chorus crisp consonants” (Maryland was known for their diction). But then in the dress rehearsal with the National Symphony Orchestra, Doráti changed that and told us to use the Italian pronunciation of the text. Well, that meant that a final “t” on the end of a word (such as “et”) was pronounced more like a “d.” We immediately made the change as if we had been trained that way all along, but a friend of mine from the Oratorio Society of Washington came to the performance asked me about it later. He said he didn’t hear any consonants and “The Maryland Chorus is known for their diction. What happened?” I said: Yeah I know you didn’t. I didn’t really hear any either — other than the hard “Key” for the “K” of the word “Kyrie” — and I was right there in the Chorus. I told him that at the last minute Doráti asked for the Italian pronunciation of the Latin text of the Requiem, so that’s why you didn’t hear the usual crisp “Maryland Chorus diction.” I personally didn’t like the change Doráti made and I suspect Dr Traver didn’t either, but there was nothing he could do about it since he wasn’t conducting the performance. I don’t remember reading a review of that performance, now that I think about it. I wonder if the reviewer remarked, “What happened to the University of Maryland Chorus last night at the Kennedy Center and their usual sparkling diction? I didn’t hear any consonants last night in their Mozart Requiem.”

Imagine a Beethoven Missa Solemnis with a strong soprano section that does not wilt midway through (think: the Credo), and no failing or cracking tenor voices

You don’t have to imagine it. You can listen to it here. The 42-voice Cappella Amsterdam Chorus is one of the finest I’ve heard. The Missa Solemnis is typically performed with a much larger Chorus, usually between 150-200 voices or more. Although as you’ll hear in this performance (if one has an ear for music), a larger Chorus is not necessary when one is fortunate to have forty-two highly-skilled and carefully-selected well-trained choristers. These choristers are among the finest in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. I recognise one of the alto choristers from Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale, Brussels, that performs in Paris with the Orchestre des Champs Élysées. In this performance, the Cappella Amsterdam sound like a large Chorus. They sound much larger than they are, especially in the Gloria and the Credo. For those interested, the Chorus is seated on the risers in SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) formation.

The reader might be interested to know that the Missa is considered an impossible piece to perform, especially for the Chorus because of the difficulty of the work. The soprano section, for example, is often up in the stratosphere sustaining long notes in the top of their register. By the time they get to the end of the Credo, one often hears straining voices. But not with this Chorus.

I have some thoughts about that: I suspect the reason straining is heard in some other choral ensembles is that the weaker choristers are pulling down/decaying the sound of the finest choristers. But when you have 42 top-notched choristers as is the case with Cappella Amsterdam, the result is no straining or wilting of voices and a perfect performance. I especially love their tenor and soprano sections since they are usually my two favourite sections of a Chorus. Those tenors. Ah! Exquisite. I’m not positive about this, but I think Daniel may have fortified his soprano section with a couple more choristers than the other sections have.

Mi amigo and I watched this together. His response was: “This piece is nonstop. The Chorus and Orchestra never have a break.” The Chorus does have a break in the Sanctus which I’ve always heard sung by the Chorus and I prefer that — it sounds grander with the Chorus — rather than the soloists singing it. Although my Editions Peters score indicates that the Sanctus is mostly to be sung by the soloists. I told mi amigo: Yes, and it’s usually in the Credo that one wonders: Does the soprano section have another sustained high B Flat perfectly on pitch in their reserve to give us when needed without any wilting or decaying of sound? With Cappella Amsterdam there was no concern about that, but with most other Orchestra Choruses it can be a concern.

Cappella Amsterdam is accompanied by the equally superb Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. And the Chorus Director, Daniel Reuss, is conducting the performance.

Also, a superb Chorus has the ability to sing beautifully quietly, and there’s no more stunning example of that in this performance than the end of the Sanctus on the text “Osanna in excelsis” starting at 57.00 in the video. Absolutely exquisite. Nearly brings tears to my eyes every time I hear that in this performance it’s so beautiful. Even Daniel looks stunned by what he’s just heard from his Chorus and Orchestra after he gives the release of the final “s” for excelsis at 1.00.50 in the video. (I’m probably getting way too technical for most readers. I read this to mi amigo/my friend who has some choral knowledge and he started glazing over; he said I was getting too technical for him.)

I should mention the soloists even though I’m typically not into soloists with symphonic choral works. The soloists are:

Carolyn Sampson [sopraan]
Marianne Beate Kielland [alt]
Thomas Walker [tenor]
David Wilson-Johnson [bas]

All of these soloists are superb in their own genre. They are probably the best soloists that Daniel could have chosen for this performance in regards to singing with as little vibrato as possible. My favourites are the alto and tenor soloists. I like them a lot. Followed by the bass soloist. I would have chosen a different soprano soloist who is less overpowering and who could sing without vibrato at loud(er) volume levels. It seems that with most symphonic choral performances, they insist on bringing in screaming, glass-breaking soprano soloist, many of whom seemed to have just walked off the set of La bohème and now are over for this other job with this symphonic choral work.

If you’ve read anything else that I’ve written along this line, you may remember that I don’t like the use of wobbling and fluttering vibrato in a symphonic choral music setting especially when the Chorus is singing with a “straight/flat tone” (which helps with the perfect blending of voices). In this performance, at times the soloists don’t sing with vibrato and at other times they do (especially the soprano when she’s singing ff or fff). I think the soprano’s voice could cut through everyone on that stage. Other than to draw an audience for the performance, I’ve never understood why opera or opera-style soloists are invited as soloist for symphonic choral works. This is not opera. Mi amigo — who can’t stand vibrato either — had difficulty listening to the soprano soloist. But fortunately, the Chorus sang with a beautiful “straight tone” and the soloists should have too, so that they match in sound.

Nearly all of the soloists for this performance (according to their smiles) seemed to enjoy listening to the exquisite Chorus standing behind them. Maybe it wasn’t possibly due to space problems, but I would have placed the soloists in places inside the orchestra — as I saw them do at Boston University’s School of Music for their performance of Rachmaninov’s The Bells — either that or seated them back near the Chorus.

My recommendations for CD performances of this work are also based on choral excellence as the # factor:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti (Margaret Hillis, Chorus Director)

or

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Shaw, Chorus Director and Conductor

Chau.—el barrio rosa

Previously:

What happened to the renowned University of Maryland Chorus?

BSO and the University of Maryland Concert Choir perform Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

University of Maryland Chorus (A Tribute)