Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beethoven's Prayer for Inner and Outer Peace

The VSO will present Beethoven's choral masterwork Missa Solemnis in two locations this January. Both performances will feature the VSO Chorus, led by Robert De Cormier, and soloists Arianna Zukerman, soprano, Mary Westbrook-Geha, alto, Roger Grow, tenor, and Kevin Deas, bass.

Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass in D Major, Op. 123)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Program notes by Dawn Willis

By the year 1819, when he started work on the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven was almost completely deaf. Though the years immediately prior had not been particularly fruitful ones, that year marked a time of renewed creativity for the reclusive composer. Originally, the Missa Solemnis was undertaken with the intent of including it among the ceremonial events surrounding the installation of Beethoven’s pupil and patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, as Archbishop, in 1820. However, the surge of creativity Beethoven experienced led him to work simultaneously on a number of other compositions, delaying the completion of the Missa Solemnis until1823, long after the installation of the Archbishop.

Performing forces for the Mass include four soloists, chorus, and full orchestra. Due to the significant demands that the work places on the performers, the earliest performances generally included only two or three of the five movements. Interestingly, the premiere performance of the Ninth Symphony in May of 1824 also included three movements of the Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven is generally considered to be a pivotal figure in the evolution of compositional styles from the Classical period to the Romantic period. His “Romantic” tendencies are as evident in the Missa Solemnis as they are in any of his late orchestral works. A significant number of the dramatic compositional devices regularly identified with his late instrumental pieces are also present in the vocal portions of the Mass, such as sudden changes of dynamics and frequent use of heavy accents in unexpected places.

Having been raised a Catholic, though not particularly religious in his later years, Beethoven understood the traditional Mass texts and used them in their entirety--not always a common practice with some of his contemporaries. The first movement (Kyrie) is the shortest movement of the five. Though not as dramatic as the other movements, the first brief phrases sung by the chorus begin with a dynamic level of forte or fortissimo at the beginning of the word “Kyrie” and then suddenly drop to a piano or pianissimo by the end of the word one or two measures later as the soloists’ voices enter. In the middle section of the movement Beethoven introduces a simple melodic motive, a descending interval of a third, which he incorporates into all five sections of the Mass.

With tremendous energy, the orchestra begins the second movement with driving eighth-note patterns that quickly move into the upper registers of the instruments. For the opening text of the movement, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” Beethoven has each section of the chorus sing ascending lines that represent shouts of praise rising to God on high. Following the exuberance of the beginning of the movement, the quartet of soloists offer brief interludes of a contemplative nature that alternate with passionate responses by the chorus. The final section of the movement consists of vibrant contrapuntal (fugal) writing that weaves together contrasting themes. The movement ends with ecstatically repeated exclamations of “Gloria” sung by the choir.

While certain portions of the Mass texts inspired many repetitions of key statements that appealed to Beethoven, other portions were dispensed with as quickly as possible. Examples of both treatments can be found in the third and longest movement of the Mass, the Credo. In fact, the last five words of the Credo text that refer to “the life of the world to come” inspired Beethoven to such a degree he devoted the final third of the movement to an immense fugue: an expression of his passionate and personal affirmation of faith.

Much of the fourth movement (Sanctus) which Beethoven indicated was to be sung “with devotion,” features the soloists. The only extended orchestral passage in the entire Missa Solemnis is found in the central portion of this movement. Somewhat mysterious and devout in character, this peaceful Preludium (seems reminiscent of a meditative organ improvisation on a simple melody. Out of this reflective passage emerges an extended violin solo that almost takes on the character of a second movement of a violin concerto. Soloists and chorus return near the end of the movement as they sing the Benedictus in alternation with the solo violin.

The final movement (Agnus Dei) begins with a prayerful request for divine mercy. The dark and almost mournful first section is followed by a lighter, more hopeful one built on the text Dona Nobis Pacem, “Grant us peace.” It is particularly meaningful to note that at the point in the score where the Dona Nobis Pacem text is first sung, Beethoven wrote the words “Prayer for both inner and outer peace.” This is indicative of his personal struggles but also his abiding hope, a theme that Beethoven would carry forward into his Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven’s creativity is evident throughout the last movement. As a nod to the historical traditions of the Mass, an a cappella (unaccompanied) section for the choir is included in this movement. He also inserts a musical reference to one of Handel’s famous fugal themes from Messiah, “And he shall reign,” found in the Hallelujah Chorus. Near the end of the piece, Beethoven interrupts the Dona Nobis Pacem section with two militaristic interludes of drum rolls and fanfares by the orchestra. The Missa Solemnis ends rather simply with a variety of repetitions of the final three words of the Mass, “Grant us peace.”


Arianna Zukerman, soprano
Possessing a luminous voice with "the breadth of dramatic inflection to make for a powerfully effective performance" (Opera), soprano Arianna Zukerman is equally in demand for opera and concert performances. The Washington Post observes "Arianna Zukerman possesses a remarkable voice that combines the range, warmth and facility of a Rossini mezzo with shimmering, round high notes and exquisite pianissimos that would make any soprano jealous." The Boston Globe lauds her "vocal poise, elegant control of style and dynamics, and real spunk" as elements that continually bring her acclaim on national and international stages.

Arianna Zukerman debuted with the New York City Opera in the 2005-06 season in Mark Adamo's Lysistrata. She recently sang the Governess in The Turn of the Screw with Chicago Opera Theater, for which she was praised by the Chicago Sun Times as "a thoughtful presence onstage, and through her expressive eyes as well as her agile voice we could almost see her character evolving." Recent operatic highlights include her return to the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera to sing Euridice in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice; her debut with Arizona Opera as Despina in Così fan tutte; Micaëla in Carmen with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Vail Valley Music Festival; Nannetta in Falstaff with Opera Illinois; Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Opera Illinois and Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre; Marzelline in Fidelio with the Minnesota Orchestra (Andrew Litton conducting); Pamina in Die Zauberflöte with Chattanooga Opera; Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Berkshire Opera Company; Nizza in the world premiere of Donizetti's Elisabeth, conducted by Will Crutchfield, at the Caramoor Music Festival; Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro, with the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon; and the role of Wilma in the world premiere of Jean-Michel Damase's Ochelata's Wedding at the OK Mozart Festival.

Equally comfortable in repertoire from oratorio to "pops", Ms. Zukerman performed as soloist in Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate with the Pittsburgh and Jackson Symphony Orchestras, in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with the Long Island Philharmonic, "ch'io mi scordi di te" with Seattle Symphony, in the holiday concerts presented at the Kennedy Center by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and returned to sing chamber music at the Savannah Music Festival. In concert she has performed with an impressive group of conductors including Jane Glover with Berkshire Choral Festival in Mozart's Requiem, Pinchas Zukerman with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and for Winterthur Musikkollegium in Mozart concert arias, and Christopher Seaman with Rochester Philharmonic in Libby Larsen's Notes Slipped Under the Door. She has sung Messiah under William Boughton with National Arts Centre Orchestra, Jeffrey Thomas with American Bach Soloists (recorded for Delos label), and Marin Alsop with the Colorado Symphony. Other highlights include Mozart's Coronation Mass and Schubert lieder (staged by director Peter Kazaras) with Eos Orchestra, Haydn's Creation for the University Music Society in Ann Arbor, and an all-Sondheim concert for Pasadena Pops.

Internationally, she has performed Mozart's C Minor Mass and Handel's Solomon with the Israel Philharmonic with Ivor Bolton conducting; Messiah with the English Symphony Orchestra; and Mozart's Requiem, Mozart arias and Vivaldi's Gloria with Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Constantine Orbelian.

Ms. Zukerman appears frequently in solo recitals in the United States and Europe. An accomplished chamber musician, she also performs regularly at the Vail Valley Music Festival, the Savannah Music Festival and the Caramoor Music Festival.

A past recipient of the Sullivan Foundation Award, Arianna Zukerman was a member of the Bavarian State Opera Junges Ensemble. She studied theatre at Brown University and received her Bachelor of Music from the Juilliard School.

Mary Westbrook-Geha, alto
Mary Westbrook’s concert repertoire extends from well-loved masterpieces such as the Verdi Requiem to contemporary works such as John Harbison’s Recordare. Her operatic repertoire includes nearly forty roles. She is also a frequent collaborator with choreographer Mark Morris. She appears frequently with the New England Bach Festival and sings regularly in the weekly series of Bach cantatas at Emmanuel Church in Boston.

Her discography includes Bach’s Magnificat with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Handel’s L’allegro, il penseroso, with Boston Baroque, Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble arrangement of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with Marlboro Music, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden with the Lydian String Quartet.

Ms. Westbrook-Geha is an avid and accomplished interpreter of the American song repertoire as well. She has appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Belgian National Opera, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan, and at the Tanglewood, Caramoor, and Marlboro Festivals.

Miss Westbrook’s recitals feature songs by Brahms, Mahler, Schumann, Schubert, Wagner, Fauré, Ravel, and Debussy.

Roger Grow, tenor
Roger Grow is a singer, composer, and instrumentalist who is a public school choral and general music teacher in Vermont. Mr. Grow sings tenor/countertenor/baritone with Robert De Cormier's Counterpoint, for which he also serves as assistant conductor. He has performed as a soloist several times at Carnegie Hall, singing "Carmina Burana,” "Shout For Joy,” "Chichester Psalms,” and most recently, "Navidad Nuestra.” With conductor Anthony Princiotti and the Dartmouth Symphony, he performed "Carmina Burana,” singing both the baritone and tenor solos. He has recorded on the Arabesque label with Mr. De Cormier, including "The Emperor of Atlantis" and "The Jolly Beggars.” Roger also recorded Dennis Murphy's "A Perfect Day,” and Bruce Chalmer's "Berakhot" with the Fyre and Lightning Consort. Mr. Grow is regularly featured on Counterpoint's five recordings on Albany Records, including "Shir La Shalom,” which features some of his arrangements.

As a composer, Mr. Grow received the commission for the 75th Vermont All-State Chorus Festival. His piece "Atom Spin" was performed in May 2002 at Burlington's Flynn Theatre. Warner Bros. has published his "Short Mass.” Mr. Grow also served as Musical Director of The Voices Project, which toured Vermont in 2005 and will be filming in the summer of 2007. Mr. Grow plays piano, bass, and drums, and composes for various jazz groups in central Vermont.

Roger lives in Plainfield, VT with his son, Chellis.

Kevin Deas, bass
Kevin Deas has gained international acclaim as one of America’s leading basses. He is especially celebrated for his riveting portrayal of the title role in Porgy and Bess which he performed with New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco, Atlanta, San Diego, Utah, Houston, Baltimore and Montreal Symphonies and at the Ravinia and Saratoga Festivals.

He has appeared numerous times at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and made frequent appearances at Carnegie Hall. He also appeared at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in a new production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors in honor of the composer's eighty-fifth birthday. This production was videotaped for worldwide release.

He has recently recorded for several labels including Die Meistersinger with the Chicago Symphony under the baton of the late Sir Georg Solti and Varèse's Ecuatorial with the ASKO Ensemble under the baton of Ricardo Chailly, both on Decca/London. Other releases include Bach's B minor Mass and Handel's Acis & Galatea on Vox Classics and Dave Brubeck's To Hope! with the Cathedral Choral Society on the Telarc label. Additionally, Mr. Deas performed “Old American Songs” by Aaron Copland at St. Cecilia Music Society with the Grand Rapids Symphony in January 2000. Five of the songs were recorded with the Symphony and are on an all-Copland release entitled “American Images,” which features the Grand Rapids Symphony led by Music Director David Lockington.

The first performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis will be on Saturday, January 26 at 8:00 PM at the Flynn Center in downtown Burlington as part of the Masterworks Series. Tickets are available through the Flynn box office at (802) 86-FLYNN or online at The VSO will travel to the Paramount Theatre in Rutland on Sunday, January 27 for a 4:00 PM performance, as part of the new Sunday Matinee Series. Tickets are available through the Paramount box office at (802) 775-0903 or online at Tickets may also be purchased at Book King at 94 Merchants Row in Rutland. Pro-rated subscriptions are still available through the VSO office. Save 15% off ticket prices and find yourself in a special reserved seat, yours for the entire season. Subscriptions may only be purchased through the VSO office at (800) VSO-9293, ext. 10.