Thursday, October 25, 2012

Richly Contemplative

On Friday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to The Cathedral Of Saint Paul to hear VocalEssence perform music of Mendelssohn and Bruckner.

VocalEssence used to be known as The Plymouth Music Series. The Plymouth Music Series was founded at Plymouth Congregational Church in 1969, and retained its original designation until nine or ten years ago, when it changed its name to VocalEssence. Philip Brunelle has been in charge of Plymouth Music Series/VocalEssence since inception.

Outside the Twin Cities, the organization is known for two notable opera recordings: a recording of Benjamin Britten’s “Paul Bunyan” for Virgin Classics, released in 1988; and a recording of Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” for the same label, released in 1990. Both recordings remain in print.

It has been years and years since we attended a VocalEssence event. In recent years, the organization has more or less fallen by the wayside, having largely abandoned classical music in favor of multiculturalism. The ensemble has become so irrelevant, I cannot recall the last time I heard anyone so much as mention a VocalEssence performance. I suspect the organization has seen much of its original audience walk away—and I predict that VocalEssence will not be around in another ten or twenty years.

It was the Bruckner Mass No. 2 and guest conductor Helmuth Rilling that attracted us to Friday night’s performance.

Like Haydn’s final mass, the “Harmoniemesse”, Bruckner’s second mass omits strings; it is scored for winds and brass only. Using an eight-part mixed chorus (necessary for the two-part canon utilizing eight-part counterpoint in the Sanctus) and dispensing with soloists, the Mass No. 2 is the shortest and most concentrated of the three Bruckner masses, lasting just under forty minutes in most performances.

The Mass No. 2 is also the most-performed of the Bruckner masses, heard with some frequency all over the world in both concert hall and cathedral. Many Bruckner scholars, the late Robert Simpson among them, have declared the Second to be the most profound and most sublime of Bruckner’s masses, what with its “slow, flowing counterpoint” and “long suspensions and clear harmony”. Myself, I have always admired the Second—it is a glorious work—yet I like the Third at least as much.

The Bruckner Mass No. 2 is familiar to music-lovers from the famous Eugen Jochum recording. Nonetheless, there have been another dozen studio recordings of the work issued by major labels using major artists. Noted conductors who have made commercial studio recordings of the work include Daniel Barenboim, Matthew Best, Marcus Creed, Wolfgang Gönnenwein, Simon Halsey, Philippe Herreweghe, Stephen Layton, Roger Norrington, Valeri Polyansky, Heinz Rögner, Zubin Mehta—and Rilling himself (who recorded the work twice, in 1966 and again in 1996).

In addition, there are countless “live” versions of Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 taken from performances in Europe, Japan and the U.S., including a version made in Saint Paul in 1970 as well as versions under Herbert Von Karajan (Salzburg 1975) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Saarbrucken 2002).

We enjoyed the performance immensely. The chorus was competent, and the orchestra was competent. Cathedral reverberation in no way detracted from the performance, although I would have preferred the clarity of concert-hall sound. It was a warm, richly-contemplative work we heard, performed in an apt and atmospheric venue. (Although the first performance of the Mass No. 2 had occurred out-of-doors, the composer knew that future performances would occur in liturgical settings.)

Prior to the Mass, VocalEssence offered four Bruckner motets and two Mendelssohn motets. They were as gravely beautiful as the music of the Mass itself.

It was a rewarding night in Saint Paul, the most enjoyable concert we have attended in some time.

We last heard Rilling four years ago, when he conducted the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale in choral music of Brahms. Rilling is fundamentally unimaginative, but he is fundamentally good—and good is sufficient in a live performance (whereas good, without more, does not count for much in recordings).

I wonder whether Friday evening was our last occasion to hear Rilling. He is now 79 years old, and looks to be frail. How many more times does he plan to cross the ocean, and how many more Twin Cities engagements does he plan to accept in future?

In April, VocalEssence will for the first time revive its 1988 production of “Paul Bunyan”, still remembered with affection in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. My parents did not attend any of the 1988 “Paul Bunyan” performances, so my parents have no recollections to call forth—but I have talked to others who caught one or more of those 1988 performances, and they recall “Paul Bunyan” as the most important project in the history of Plymouth Music Series/VocalEssence.

We may have to catch one of the “Paul Bunyan” performances.

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