With Masur ill, Oliver and BSO struggle in “Missa solemnis”
On Thursday night, in circumstances that appeared uncomfortable for all involved, chorus master John Oliver substituted for the indisposed Kurt Masur and led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and vocal soloists in a painfully tentative performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.
Oliver, a revered figure in Boston for decades of superb performances by his Tanglewood ensemble, deserves credit for stepping in with only about a day’s notice, risking embarrassment to save the show.
But having a choral conductor lead a symphony orchestra without preparation is like asking a pianist to give an organ recital. The skills are similar in some ways, and profoundly different in others.
On Thursday night Oliver elected, probably wisely, not to try to indicate much in the way of expression, but to plant his feet on the podium and keep time. Even this modest goal was not met, however, as the orchestra had difficulty following his beat and struggled to keep together all evening.
Even the chorus, although doubtless well prepared for their expected performances with Masur, seemed often to be on autopilot, as if distracted by concern for their boss.
The four soloists, however, were in splendid voice, and mostly well-matched in style and timbre–although tenor Simon O’Neill sounded more tightly-wound than the other three, and he let in a few sliding attacks better suited to the opera house.
Soprano Christine Brewer sang with easy power and a fine rounded tone in the early going, but later showed signs of strain, whether from the demands of her part or the evening’s difficulties in general. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung’s big, round voice remained satisfyingly firm throughout. Bass-baritone Eric Owens easily held his own in the group, delivering admirably clear, well-projected tone through his whole range.
In the early movements of Beethoven’s work—the Kyrie and especially the extroverted Gloria—the abundance of noise and activity can mask a multitude of problems. The sparse and visionary later movements, however, call for spiritual imagination and interpretive risk-taking that is far beyond anything that could have been achieved in this performance. One wonders why one of the orchestra’s assistant conductors wasn’t on standby to be available for these concerts.
Even considering the unfortunate circumstances Thursday night, this Missa solemnis proved something of an embarrassment to a fine orchestra. If the two additional performances proceed as scheduled on Friday and Saturday, one can only hope that Oliver and the musicians will find a comfort zone in which they can make music together.
The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1492.
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