I last wrote about the virtues of the fine, Hyde Park-based, Chicago Chorale two years ago. Since then, I have had the pleasure of hearing them in concert several times and on two CD recordings, Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and their 10th Anniversary release, “And Give Us Peace”. What I find so appealing about this all-volunteer ensemble of 60 trained singers, beyond their stellar musicianship, is their drive to take on ever-greater challenges.
Their upcoming concert, next Monday evening at Symphony Center, is a perfect example of this choral group’s chutzpah. Conductor Bruce Tammen’s forces will join with the Oak Park-River Forest Symphony and Chorus under Jay Friedman’s direction to perform Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”.
Everything about the production is big. Instead of performing the work in their usual church setting, the Chorale is moving downtown to the home of the Chicago Symphony, which has scheduled the same work for next October. The Chorale, for this performance, has augmented its ranks with 26 additional singers and will be joined by 42 choristers from Oak Park for a massing of 128 voices filling the hall.
Due to the difficulty of the scoring, the Missa is usually performed strictly by professional symphony orchestras with easier access to choral forces, and even then, not often. Thus, one can only admire the artistic challenge Tammen and Friedman have assumed.
Beethoven drew inspiration for his Mass from the examples of Handel and Bach. The audience will hear distinct Handel-like sonorities in the score as well as what Tammen calls two “fiendishly difficult” fugues and contrapuntal scoring modeled on Bach’s “B Minor Mass.” Along with Bach’s Mass, the Missa is a supreme musical example of a Mass setting.
Beethoven composed the Missa between 1819-23, during the time he was working on his monumental Ninth Symphony. It began as a commission for the Archduke Rudolph of Austria’s inauguration but was not completed by the 1820 date.
Tammen believes the composer needed to write a mass to top other masses. “One can’t overstate the ego-gratification needs of Beethoven.” Beethoven even set the Ninth aside to work on the score he called his greatest work.
Tammen feels that, were the Missa Solemnis better known, it would be an audience favorite and a Beethoven masterwork, equal to the symphonies. I will be in the audience hearing the work for the first time and listening for the great fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo as well as the Agnus Dei.
When asked for personal highpoints of his leadership, Tammen cites the Chorale’s performances at the acoustically-stunning Monastery of the Holy Cross in Bridgeport, their appearances at the Ravinia Festival and a highly successful tour of France and Spain last summer.
Besides buying tickets to what, based on my past experience, should be a glorious musical evening, I urge you to visit the Chorale’s attractive, content-rich website at www.chicagochorale.org where you can download a study guide for the concert, watch a video about the upcoming performance and click on an Missa audio guide, “Top Ten Moments to Listen For”.
On the company’s 12th season schedule are performances of Bach’s “St. John Passion” and a concert at the Monastery. Off in the future lies Haydn’s “Creation,” Brahms’ “German Requiem” and a possible return to Ravinia. That’s Tammen and the Chorale dreaming bigger dreams.
The Missa Solemnis performance is at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 5 with a pre-concert introduction by WFMT’s Carl Grapentine at 6:30 p.m. Ticket sales are being handled by Symphony Center’s box office at 312/294-3000 or www.cso.org.