An August 27 sold-out audience at the Globe News Center witnessed artistic magic on the stage, as Amarillo became, for about two hours, the cultural epicenter for the planet! A perfect combination of musicians: choristers, vocal soloists, and instrumentalists under the baton of Maestro Michael Palmer performed the Missa Solemnis. Called by Beethoven his greatest work, it is also his least performed Magnum Opus.
In fact, the next date and place for performance was August 31, a half of a world away at the world-renown Berliner Festspiele with the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. That puts Amarillo on the top rung of the world’s cultural ladder.
The saga of the Amarillo performance is an epic worth telling. The original inspiration for performance of the Missa came to David Palmer, Artistic Director of Chamber Music Amarillo, as a morning epiphany in 2018 as he’d been thinking about appropriate ways to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday.
When he called his nationally-recognized conductor father, Michael Palmer to ask him to conduct the piece, David recounts that there was a protracted silence at the other end of the line. Finally, Michael asked his son, “Do you have any idea of what you’re asking of your community?”
David did understand the challenge, but he knew that Amarillo had both the musical resources as well as the public will to mount this logistically-challenging work. It is not only very expensive, requiring generous patrons, but the complex score demands a long-term commitment from accomplished musicians.
But the best-laid plans of mice and men…..! Covid corrupted all of our lives’ timetables for two years, causing two resets for the performance. The entire time that the show was in limbo, performers continued practicing, which ultimately paid off. Maybe the third time is the charm?
The work is extremely vocally challenging. Beethoven is notorious for alleged antipathy towards singers, making nearly impossible demands of both soloists and chorus. This complexity requires months, which stretched into years, of preparations. The fact that singers must hold forth for eighty minutes puts this work on a par with grand opera. By comparison, the 9th is a walk in the park.
And, in additional contrast to the 9th, where soloists and chorus are discreet and separate, the Missa is very interactive, demanding a high degree of precision and sensitivity between the two groups.
As noted, Beethoven called the Missa his best work. Though he used the text of the ordinary mass, each section in Beethoven’s composition broke the bonds of traditional limitation, vaulting into new realms of expression. But, the Viennese Church hierarchy forbade the performance of the mass in concert, so the premier took place in St. Petersburg. The entire work did get a hearing in Vienna until nearly two decades after Beethoven’s death!
It’s a shame that Vienna had to wait so long to hear what one of their own created. Beethoven enfolds the listener with his kaleidoscopic musical vision of the awesome majesty of the Almighty. At times he bludgeons the audience with Sturm und Drang, while in other parts he beguiles with sublime supplication and reverence. In this work he tasks himself with composing a tonal epic worthy of the infinite and omnipotent, which he demands that all embrace. There is no compromise in Beethoven!
Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, chorus master and assistant conductor noted that ultimately there were 105 singers, including the four soloists. Sources for the chorus included the Amarillo Master Chorale, the West Texas A&M Chorale, Wayland Baptist University, the Amarillo College Choir, the First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir, and outstanding singers from both the Amarillo and Canyon school districts.
The soloists must be both astute and confident. Entrances are often solo, but the parts then meld, either in ensemble with other soloists or with the chorus. The four soloists: Mela Sarajane Dailey, soprano; Ellen Graham, mezzo-soprano; Eric Barry, tenor; Clayton Brainerd, bass-whether alone or in tandem, set a new standard for excellence. Listen to recordings done by internationally known orchestras and particularly the male parts are muted. Not so in Amarillo as both home town favorite Eric Barry and Clayton Brainerd held forth at times with what amounted to an assertive ferocity.
An analysis of just one of the sections, the Gloria, illustrates the complexity of the entire work. In this section, Beethoven is off and running from the starting downbeat, with the orchestra and each choral part having their sequential say. The thunder subsides at 1:41, only to return a few musical seconds later at 1:48 with Laudamus te. When the chorus sings Glorificamus te, it explodes like a musical cluster bomb, with each part having their song heard. All this is the first four minutes!
The chorus gets a break, as the soloists in turn give thanks in Gratia agimus tibi.
The respite is brief, as the chorus charges in at 4:48 with Dominus Deus, which continues for five lines at the end of the section, with the soloists making a vocal appearance at Jesu Christie. There ensues some serious interplay twixt orchestra, soloists and chorus in this section, some of which is quite assertive.
Quite a different mood is struck when the topic is sin, in Qui tollis pecata mundi. The tone becomes reverential and supplicatory, themes which dominate in the final three sections of the Missa. However, Beethoven still has points to make, which he does with emphasis in Qui sedes ad dextram Patris.
The last of the Gloria is a glorious profusion of Glorias, alliterative pun intended. Some are enunciated in triads, a possible nod to the Trinity, while others are protracted into Handelian runs. And, the Gloria ends not with the Amen, but with more Glorias, just for emphasis.
Conductor Michael Palmer directed this massive work with understated precision. He had obviously imparted his musical vision to both the instrumentalists, and to the chorus master, Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, as well as the soloists, because all musicians were on the same page. His experience as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw Chorale was much in evidence.
Amarillo is always honored when Maestro Palmer raises his baton here on the High Plains, and hopefully the future will see his frequent return to the concert stage.
This concert was definitely worth the five year wait! Attendees certainly recognized the significance as a once-in-a-lifetime event on the stage at the Globe News Center, as viewed from the geographic range of the audience’s origins. Eager listeners came from all over the tri-state area, as well as from far out-of-state.
No one left disappointed: a stunned elation at the conclusion gave way to a protracted ovation, not only for the performance, but to all who made it possible.
So, Happy Belated Birthday, Ludwig! The quality performance of your best work and its reception here on the Comancheria doubtless made your shade smile.
And, we smile along with you, as we proudly say:
Keep Amarillo Artsy!
Keep Austin Weird!
Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!