Pillars of the classical canon—say, Berg’s Violin Concerto or Bach’s Goldberg Variations—are approached with reverence by most performers, typically only when they feel ready to assume the great responsibility. For choristers, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Op. 123, is such a piece. And the Chicago Chorale is embarking on the most ambitious project of its 11-year history in tackling the mass.
“Great music is too important to be left to professionals. It is a holy thing which belongs to all of us,” Chorale artistic director Bruce Tammen tells us via e-mail. The progression from smaller works, such as the Duruflé and Fauré Requiems, to a sold-out Bach B Minor Mass and now the Missa solemnis has been a decade-long enterprise for the Chorale. With the assistance of CSO principal trombonist and conductor Jay Friedman’s Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, and an open slot at Symphony Center, the 80-minute mass has come within reach for Tammen. He humbly admits that his vocal conducting skills do not translate to the orchestral setting demanded by the mass. He sees Friedman as essential to the endeavor.
The Missa solemnis, completed one year prior to the composer’s Ninth Symphony, employs wickedly challenging fugal writing, as in the Credo movement’s “et vitam venturi.” One of the most staggeringly gorgeous moments of the piece occurs during the Sanctus, as a solo violin descends from the heavens—and the top of the fingerboard. The mass is performed far too infrequently. Applaud Chicago Chorale for its audacity.