The UW Choral Union in rehearsal.
For its gala spring presentation, the UW Choral Union, with the UW Symphony Orchestra and four vocal soloists, gave Madison the novel hearing of Beethoven's "Missa solemnis," so rarely undertaken hereabouts for its difficulty and scope.
Conceiving it for the ecclesiastical enthronement of his pupil and friend, the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven took so long to write it (1819-23) that it was finished too late for its intended purpose. By then, he had turned it into something that could no longer fit into a Catholic Mass celebration. And its great technical demands militated against its performance, as a complete work, within Beethoven's remaining years.
Building on the late Masses of Haydn, and parallel work by Cherubini, Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" finalized a pattern that prevailed through the 19th century, by which composers set traditional Latin texts no longer as functioning liturgical music but as concert scores. From Beethoven's standpoint, it belongs to the final years of his creativity when, isolated by deafness from realities of performing capabilities, he conceived of works (the Ninth Symphony, the late piano sonatas, the late string quartets) that broke out of then-normal boundaries of music-making and became transcendent strivings for the sublime.
The "Missa solemnis" is, then, a very challenging venture for musicians to undertake, at whatever level of experience. Indeed, it is virtually an impossible work to bring off "perfectly." And the first of the two performances, on Saturday evening May 1, was undeniably imperfect by abstract standards. The student orchestra had rough spots, perhaps a result of insufficient rehearsal. But they brought off their assignment sturdily, their concertmaster Paul Bagley handsomely rendering the beautiful solo violin part in the Benedictus.
The soloists -- Brooke Jackson, Jennifer Sams, Heath Rush, and Thomas Weis -- were all UW Music School products. Individually fine singers, they did not quite crystalize into the integrated quartet Beethoven envisioned, if with daunting demands, and there were moments of disconnection with the orchestra.
But for these concerts, the Choral Union is the star. Cavils are possible. The chorus constituted 158 singers, an immense number to control. Latin diction often suffered, and the utter disproportion between women (104 singers) and men (54) skewed balances. For all the problems, though, Choral Union conductor Beverly Taylor welded this throng into a mighty sonority that was undeniably grand. And it seemed to me that, exactly in the elaborately fugal choral sections (especially the final section of the Credo), Taylor generated best an irresistible power that was simply thrilling.
The point of the Choral Union, after all, is to allow choral singers of both town and campus to have the experience of participating in a thoroughly prepared performance of great music. On the model of her predecessor, Robert Fountain, Taylor has fulfilled that goal gloriously with this brave undertaking.
The second performance is Sunday evening, May 2, at 7:30, in Mills Hall on the UW campus.