It is something of a special event when Donald Runnicles is scheduled to conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He has been its principal guest conductor since 2001 and he is arguably the highest-profile conductor to appear on the Symphony Hall podium. This weekend's program presented Beethoven's monumental Missa solemnis, composed in 1823. Often those who conduct choral works seems to focus exclusively on the chorus  while simultaneously neglecting the orchestra and soloists. But this was not the case with Maestro Runnicles: he gave us his take on the Missa, while never losing sight of Beethoven.

Donald Runnicles © Florence McCall
Donald Runnicles
© Florence McCall

A successful operatic performance requires that a conductor manages many moving parts simultaneously while maintaining the quality of the performance. Maestro Runnicles' opera experience (he is general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin) informed his approach to conducting the mass. He was clearly in charge of everything: he cued the sections of the orchestra, chorus, and soloists, while vigorously controlling the tempo, dynamics and structure of the entire performance. To communicate his desires, he used everything from the twitter of his fingers, facial expressions and baton to ensure that his conception of the music was implemented. Even between the Kyrie and the Gloria, he had the soloists re-arrange their chairs to assert even firmer musical direction over their performances. He left nothing to chance and it paid off with a fiercely strong performance.

The voices of Kim-Lillian Strebel and Stephanie Lauricella were complementary to each other in timbre and vibrato. Ms Strebel started out particularly strongly, but her voice became strident as it had to deal with the rigors of Beethoven's music, as in the Sanctus. Shawn Mathey had occasional difficulty in maintaining sufficient breath at the end of long phrases, while Brian Mulligan became stronger as the performance progressed. Runnicles ensured that the Kyrie's three sections were distinctly different but not disjointed nor episodic and he forged a nice integration between the chorus and soloists. The Gloria was, well, glorious. The final two fugues were big and powerful and played with great aplomb by the ASO. However, in the "You who sit at the right hand" section, the ASO Chorus was exceedingly loud; sometimes this chorus is better at boldness than subtlety. The Credo, in which Beethoven draws upon older styles of church music, was remarkable for some wonderful playing by the ASO flutes, especially in the Et incarnatus.

Beethoven's musical painting of the resurrection was deftly played and awe inspiring. In the Benedictus section of the Sanctus, Beethoven adds a preludio followed by a solo violin accompanied by the orchestra, almost as if a violin concerto suddenly appeared.  Concertmaster David Coucheron played this solo with integrity and a full- bodied tone. The Benedictus featured a nicely wrought performance by the orchestra, Coucheron, the soloists, and the chorus. The final Agnus Dei featured a strong introduction by the men's voices to be followed by the pastoral Dona nobis pacem, which is then contrasted with what has become known as the "war interruption", played with appropriate dazzle by the ASO brass and timpani. The ending of the work was warm and stately.

The Missa provides many an opportunity to showcase the various sections of the orchestra, but especially the bassoons, which were technically and musically wonderful in this performance. Maestro Runnicles lost neither the detail or the grand arc of the Missa and the ASO, its chorus, and the soloists responded beautifully in this fine performance. 

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