Dallas — Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a rarely performed masterpiece. It requires a large chorus, four excellent soloists, a top-quality professional orchestra with an exceptional concertmaster who is able to shine on an extended solo. All participants, especially the soprano section, are pushed to their extremes in range, technical demands and endurance.
All of these elements were successfully assembled on the stage of the Meyerson Symphony Center on Sunday evening as the first edition of the newly formed Dallas Choral Festival unfolded under the direction of Greg Hobbs, director of music at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, director of the Highland Park Chorale and choral director at the University of North Texas.
There were many familiar faces in the orchestra, which was pulled from the Dallas Symphony and Dallas Opera orchestras, along with some outstanding freelance players. In the all-important concertmaster seat, Senior Associate Concertmaster of the DSO, Gary Levinson, did a superb job as leader and as soloist.
The quartet was equally distinguished. Most noticeable to opera buffs was Kevin Burdette, who recently appeared in leading roles in three world premieres with the Dallas Opera: Everest, Great Scott, and Becoming Santa Claus. He also had a staring role in Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain at Santa Fe this past summer. His resonate bass voice was perfect for filling Beethoven’s demands.
The other three singers were also up to the task. Soprano Amanda Hall and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane have voices of great beauty and with the required Wagnerian heft. Tenor Vale Rideout has a bright Italian sound, combined with enough heldentenor overtones, to match the other three singers. The quartet took on quite a monster job and succeeded brilliantly.
For some reason, Hobbs placed them at the front of the choral terrace with the chorus, rather than the usual spot for soloists: in front of the orchestra. Because of this, they were sometimes hard to distinguish from the overall choral sound, especially when all forces were in action at the same time. (It had to add to the already significant ensemble challenges Beethoven presents.)
An aside: These quartet passages, like the corresponding vocal soloist’s parts in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, are both difficult and ungrateful. Beethoven writes music more suited for instrumentalists than for voices, with dense harmonies and complex counterpoint.
Levinson not only gave a superior account of the difficult solo in the “Santus” movement, but also was invaluable in the concertmaster’s chair for the entire performance—no easy task.
The orchestra and chorus were in fine form and met all of Beethoven’s excessive demands. The soprano section gets a Purple Heart for conquering Beethoven’s almost sadistic writing, at the top of their range for extended passages. Right to the end, they didn’t sound tired or push the voice to screech levels, as often happens in this piece.
Hobbs obviously knows every note of this piece and was right on with tempi throughout. His loose and looping stick technique, lacking a noticeable ictus (or tick) on each beat, caused some ensemble problems. While his beat pattern is suitable for the chorus, instrumentalists need a more precise location of the counts, especially the downbeat, to coordinate entrances among widely spaced instrumentalists.
One additional observation: The journey Beethoven takes us on in this work is hard to follow under the best of circumstances. As the audience, we really depend on the conductor to take a bird’s eye view and show us the overall architecture of the whole piece—a road map, as it were, from the first note to the last. While Hobbs certainly set appropriate tempi, paid close attention to the dynamics and balance while creating some exciting moments, he didn’t communicate how each passage fit into the whole as we went along. For example, there were lots of admirably performed big moments, but not that one standout that would help us locate the apex of the entire mass.
But these quibbles aside, the performance has to be considered a stunning success for the first outing of a new professional chorus. They took on a work that few such organizations will tackle and delivered a memorable performance. We eagerly look forward to their next event.