Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Severance Hall
October 31

Singing with divine inspiration.

I like that Messiaen!”

When a regular in the dress circle jumps up to express that kind of enthusiasm, you know you’ve nailed the piece. Or at least offered a break from the heavyweight fare the orchestra has been delivering the past couple weeks. The Beethoven overload continued through much of the past weekend, brightened by a surprisingly agile Mass in C major. And the turn to 20th-century French spiritualism was divine.

Which was no accident. The Thursday and Saturday programs focused on two very different varieties of religious experience. Beethoven’s Mass sets the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy to music with a colorful Romantic flair that embodies earthly joys as much as spiritual aspirations. Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine (Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence) is a trio of modernist psalms characterized by the composer’s pantheism and use of unorthodox orchestration. Paired, they offer strikingly different ways to worship, with both stretching traditional notions of prayer.

Beethoven’s Mass is a mid-career work (1807) that in retrospect sounds less like a church service than a preview of the coming symphonies – radiant, heroic, bursting with ideas and energy. With four soloists and a full chorus, the piece is actually more of an oratorio, though the vocalists get few individual moments in the spotlight. Conductor Franz Welser-Möst chose four with whom he works on a regular basis: soprano Luba Orgonášová, mezzo Kelley O’Connor, tenor Herbert Lippert and baritone Ruben Drole. Individually they were competent but as a quartet they were outstanding, their voices a beautiful fit in harmony.

The orchestra was light and vibrant, playing with a pulse that throbbed at times like a beating heart. But the real star of the piece was the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, eight rows of singers packed wall-to-wall behind the musicians. They were lustrous, reaching piercing highs in the “Gloria” and dropping to a mesmerizing sotto voce for parts of the concluding “Agnus Dei.” Most impressive was the chorus’s three-dimensional sound, layers within layers that gave the music a shimmering, almost visible quality. And with 130 voices reverberating off the back wall of the Severance stage, the sound reached for the heavens in both volume and tone.

What usually gets the most attention in Messaien’s Petites Liturgies is the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument developed in the late 1920s that looks like a small, spare organ with outsized speakers. The composer used it regularly, though in this piece its space-age sound tends to get lost in the larger mix of strings, percussion and women’s voices. Especially these voices – golden, ethereal and remarkably versatile, seamlessly integrating the chirps of the second movement and excited chattering of the third.

The lead voice in Petites Liturgies actually belongs to the piano, a series of clattering, dissonant phrases that contrast sharply with the spiritual atmosphere set by the strings, voices and text like “My Jesus, my stillness.” Pianist Joela Jones spoke with precision and clarity, with Welser-Möst cueing off her lines to modulate melodies that could whip into a maelstrom or dissipate into gossamer threads. A final buildup to slashing lines that broke and faded out with delicate reverberations was enough to bring audience members to their feet – and in one case, yell out approval.

The choice of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as the middle selection on the program was puzzling. Along with creating a disconcerting break in the religious theme and intensity of the concert, it was a repeat – Welser-Möst did it with the orchestra at Blossom just four months ago. Or perhaps Blossom counts as an out-of-town venue. Either way, the piece sounded exactly the same, appropriately taut, dark-toned and enigmatic. It’s unlikely the Grosse Fugue will get a better reading from an American orchestra. But as this space noted last week, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

The orchestra is taking variations of the program on tour through Hamburg, Frankfurt, Paris, Luxembourg, Cologne, Linz and Vienna this month. It will be interesting to see what the Europeans make of it.

For a look at the ondes martenot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ondes_Martenot

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

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