Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blowing Amy Kaiser's Mind

We of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus have had an unusual season. What with one thing and another, it wasn't until the last weekend of February that the full chorus got to sing. For me it was an extra-special delight: only my second time singing Mozart's Requiem, an exquisite musical confession of a dying genius's Catholic faith.

I previously sang this piece under the baton of SLSO music director David Robertson, in the original edition completed by Mozart's vastly inferior contemporary Franz Xaver Süssmayr after the former's untimely death. The Süssmayr version is the most widely known, though least skillful, of the many completions of Mozart's Requiem. Nevertheless it is a work of stirring beauty and spiritual power, made all the more remarkable by its imperfections, the poignancy of its incompleteness, and the never-to-be-resolved ambiguity as to how much is Mozart and how much Süssmayr.

This time, conducted by the Italian maestro Roberto Abbado, we sang a blend of several different performing editions, including the recent completions by Franz Beyer and Robert Levin, as well as some of Abbado's own revisions and a touch of Süssmayr as well. And though the grouchy conservative in me was occasionally set off by an unwarranted change (most notably in the choral bass part of the "Lachrymosa" and "Agnus Dei" movements), Abbado's version has a lot to be said for it. In the Sanctus-Benedictus, for example, Levin extended the twin fugues on the phrase "Osanna in excelsis," which in Süssmayr's version tend to sound rather abrupt; Levin, or somebody, also contrived a transition back to the first Osanna's key of D so that the second one would not end in the musically heterodox key of B-flat.

Working with Maestro Abbado was a lovely experience. Some guest conductors in the past have elicited great hostility from members of the chorus. I remember one who was sour-faced and rude all week long, another who (although otherwise charming) rejected every detail of how we had prepared a piece and subjected us to a frustrating week-long crash-course in singing it his way, and a third who in the last minutes of an otherwise wonderful rehearsal-week let loose in a tirade of irrational fury. Roberto Abbado, in total contrast, was unfailingly gracious and diplomatic. He never made a performance note sound like a criticism, and he always said something positive first.

I didn't notice that this was a stratagem until, after saying something complimentary, he let slip a remark like "That's what I say instead of what I want to say." In other words, he is absolutely aware of the character of touchy musicians and singers; he realizes what he has to lose by offending them; and he goes out of his way to keep them smiling inside and out. It may not have been altogether sincere, but Maestro Abbado's unfailing sweetness was one of the things that made our Mozart week a memorably harmonious (no pun intended) and pleasurable week of music-making.

The high point of the fun, for me, came during the conductor's piano rehearsal with the chorus, with our director Amy Kaiser sitting onstage. When Abbado explained some of what was going on in the structure of Mozart's music - some of his reasons for doubting the orthodox position on where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins - his reasoning blew Amy's mind. It was especially fun when Abbado pointed out the similarity between the "Osanna" fugue subject and the main theme of the "Recordare" ensemble number. Amy covered her face and groaned: "I've never noticed that before!" Then she sang the respective phrases and observed that it was mindblowing but true: Mozart (and/or Süssmayr) wove thematic links through this Requiem in ways that go far deeper than the musical repetition of the opening Introit and Kyrie music in the concluding Communio.

The Osannas and the Recordare share a thematic shape not only with each other, but with other points in the piece, such as the twin fugues on "quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus" during the Offertorium section. This shows that Mozart connected the disparate ideas of these movements on a deeply meaningful level, and signified that connection through musical connections of such unsung genius that, even after decades in the symphony-chorus business, Amy Kaiser can still respond to them as to a mindblowing discovery. And if these connections reach across the line between the sections known to have been written by Mozart and those of which no sketches in Mozart's hand are extant - i.e. the Süssmayr sections - it raises fresh and (forgive me) mindblowing questions as to how far Mozart's involvement in the latter sections really reached. Maybe his instructions to Süssmayr were more detailed than anyone previously realized. Either that or, for one freak moment in his mediocre career, Süssmayr became a real though imperfect channel for a genius on the order of Mozart.

The SLSO and Chorus presented the Mozart-Süssmayr-Bayer-Levin (etc.) Requiem on February 26-27. Forgive the past tense, given the date stamp on this post; it's been hard to keep up with my blog over the past couple of weeks. The performances, as I was saying, were warmly received. The chorus received especially flattering notices in the local paper. And the quartet of young soloists were a pleasure to see and hear: soprano Celena Shafer (a last-minute replacement for another singer who bowed out due to illness, who nevertheless nailed her part dead-on), mezzo Marianna Pizzolato (whose voice has an amazing power of penetration, and who looks like someone who would be fun to know), tenor Alek Shrader (who looks like a frat boy but sings like a pro), and baritone Luca Pisaroni (who looks like someone who should be modeling tweed jackets, but whose powerful and accurate voice bodes for a brilliant singing career). I particularly enjoyed their blendalicious ensemble numbers, such as "Recordare" and "Tuba mirum" (though, to be sure, they didn't have a lot to sing besides). The latter piece also featured a very fine solo by one of three trombones (alto, tenor, and bass) which play a prominent role in this work.

And of course no review of a Mozart Reqiuem is comnplete without a few reverential words about the basset horns - basically, tenor clarinets in F - which contribute to the remarkable tone colors of this masterpiece. The whole work opens, for example, with a quartet of two bassoons and two basset horns, singing a lament of heart-wringing pathos over a sobbing accompaniment by the strings, until a dramatic flare-up of trombone-driven grief introduces the chorus's urgent plea that the Lord would "grant them eternal rest." Mozart picked an unusual ensemble of instruments for his last work, instruments suited for a work filled with the muted glow of twilight and, on the cusp between life and death, a struggle between the darkness of doubt and fear and between the light of faith and hope.

IMAGES: Mozart; Abbado; Shafer; Pizzolato; Shrader; Pisaroni.

No comments: