Salisbury Singers wrap up 40th year with Beethoven

Salisbury Singers wrap up 40th year with Beethoven


WORCESTER — In 1817, Beethoven began composing the Missa Solemnis, which was to be performed at the installation, as archbishop, of his friend, patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Unfortunately, the Mass was not completed in time for the installation; in fact, it was not completed until 1822. By that time, the composition had grown so lengthy and complex that Beethoven himself indicated it was no longer suitable for accompanying the Catholic liturgy, but that it should be presented in concert performance.

This was the presentation given by the Salisbury Singers on Saturday evening in Mechanics Hall as the concluding concert of their 40th anniversary year. The Singers were joined by the Assumption College Chorale, orchestra, four vocal soloists and, inexplicably, organ, all conducted by Michelle Graveline, music director of both the Singers and the Chorale.

The Missa Solemnis is a massive work that makes great demands on performers. The constant key changes, extensive dynamic range, rhythmic complexity, and especially the extended vocal range make it a challenging piece to perform for even the most highly skilled chorus. Ms. Graveline’s group rose to the occasion with a skillful and satisfying performance, one that showed concentrated effort and commitment from all the singers.

The text of the Missa Solemnis comes from the Latin prayers that comprise the ordinary, the unchangeable parts, of the Catholic liturgy. Beethoven’s setting of these prayers reflects his deeply felt religious convictions, and the music is always in the service of emphasizing the meaning of the text; for example the many repetitions of the four-note motif on the word “credo” (I believe) and the hushed repetitions of the word “pacem” (peace). The Chorus effectively conveyed the emotion behind these and other key sections.

The words were clearly sung, even in the complex fugal parts, and the chorus sang with a full, rich sound, particularly in the homophonic sections. Though the stratospheric pitches given to the sopranos sometimes were not right on target, and the baritones needed a more focused tone in the lower register, all the parts were well-rehearsed and cleanly presented.

The orchestra assembled for the occasion did a creditable job, though the trumpets had some tentative entrances. The violin obbligato during the Benedictus was beautifully and sensitively played by Peter Sulski, concertmaster for the evening.

The excellent soloists were Diana McVey, soprano, Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano, Ray Bauwens, tenor, and Dana Whiteside, baritone. Their individual solos were consistently well sung, but when singing as a quartet the mezzo part was not in balance with the other three voices. Mr. Bauwens and Mr. Whiteside were particularly excellent and Ms. McVey turned in a stunning performance.

The audience was quietly attentive during the nearly 90-minute concert, which was performed without intermission, and they gave the performers a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion. Congratulations to all the musicians involved in this fine performance and special felicitations to the Salisbury Singers on 40 years of music-making. We look forward to many more.

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