In 80 glorious minutes, John Alexander' launched the 49th season of the Pacific Chorale by leading four intrepid soloists, 142 choristers and a 53-member configuration of the Pacific Symphony – 10-8-6-6-4 in the strings – in a remarkably gentle and loving performance of Beethoven's Missa solemnis. Announced from the stage by the music director, entering his farewell season, as in “five large symphonic movements”, the music had a celebratory air, poised somewhere between Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony and Mozart's Requiem; but though initially there was nothing conventionally spiritual in the air, despite the music's profoundly intimate ties to the text, as the evening evolved the willpower and physical energy committed to assembling and managing the sheer size and complexity of the musical structure and construction, constituted a spiritual message all its own. By the end the audience had been transported into the magical mystery world of late Beethoven.

John Alexander © Pacific Chorale
John Alexander
© Pacific Chorale

The excellence of the combined forces was clear from the opening moments: from sweet woodwinds to splendid martial trumpets and drums, the orchestra's ability, especially in the massively difficult string parts, to incorporate Beethoven's frequent impulsive fugues into the musical flow without missing more than a nano-beat or two, matching the Chorale's similar mobility, was remarkable.

And as Beethoven favors the women throughout, both Tamara Mancini, with a thrilling soprano voice of incomparable richness and accuracy, and Renée Tatum, whose luscious mezzo-soprano showed a wonderful high range, showed a sense of commitment to Alexander's vision and the idea of teamwork that facilitated movement and a natural sense of flow, proclaimed by the ringing stentorian tenor of Nicholas Preston and grounded in the solid work of bass Nathan Stark.

As for the Chorale, which Alexander has conducted since 1972, its balance with the soloists and the orchestras was nearly always ideal, as in the layering behind the soloists at the Christe eleison, with the rich lower strings setting the pulse, creating warmth which would continue for the entire performance, even during the most terrible moments of the Crucifixus. Nor was the Chorale thrown off by the occasional orchestral unevenness, staying on beat no matter what, and drawing out the end of the Gloria with one voice, with a master's touch. Equally impressive was the way it handled the Osanna in excelsis fugal perorations, starting off uncertainly but then surging to a transcendental Praeludium and an exquisite reading of the violin solo elevating the Holy Spirit.

The Credo was splendid, optimistic, the Chorale throwing off masses of sound, the cellos, led by Timothy Landauer, for once an intelligible part of the overall fabric. Even the timpanist became increasingly caught up in the emotional development, his muffled strokes at the opening turned into mighty hammers in the Agnus Dei. It still felt, however, that Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall – and Beethoven – could have handled a larger orchestra. 
When talking to the audience before the music began, Alexander had asked them to hold their applause until the end. "Then," he said, "we will look for a thunderous ovation." 
Which is just what he got.

****1