The Philadelphia Orchestra rarely performs Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, so perhaps it thought the audience needed an extra element to connect with this contemplative, cerebral work. The company engaged Refik Anadol, a Turkish-born visual artist, to create a digital collage to accompany the music, projecting colorful, often abstract images continuously throughout the composition’s five movements. Anadol programmed millions of images – most of them sacred buildings in Europe – into a database that spontaneously generated and distorted them over the course of 90 minutes. Leaning heavily into the futuristic language of artificial intelligence, promotional copy hailed this artistic approach as a machine’s dream made into reality.

The Philadelphia Orchestra performs Beethoven's Missa solemnis
© Jeff Fusco

While I respect the orchestra for its creativity and its willingness to engage with new media, the extramusical component added little of value to the proceedings. The images that flashed across the rectangular screen suspended above the stage at Verizon Hall most often resembled a computer screensaver: grainy, swirling blobs of color that seemed harshly garish against the din of a darkened auditorium. Occasionally something that resembled an actual church would come into focus, only to be wiped away in another whoosh of light. The bombastic yet hopeful concluding chorus of the Agnus Dei was eclipsed by puddles of white and brown sludge that reminded me of cream being stirred into coffee.

The misguided visual aspect caused musical repercussions too. The projection apparatus displaced the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir from its usual perch in the conductor’s circle, which affected balances. Further still, the choir sang masked at the final matinee, after the detection of Covid cases within the company. Despite these limitations, they made an admirable contribution, with pure, well-blended sound and a strong sense of each movement’s discrete character. They matched the urgency that Yannick Nézet-Séguin brought to the Gloria and the prayerful reverence of the Credo. Credit to choir director Amanda Quist for guiding her forces past potential thickets of adversity.

The Philadelphia Orchestra performs Beethoven's Missa solemnis
© Jeff Fusco

The four assembled soloists fared less well. They had to deal with balance issues too, as they were sequestered to a raised platform near the wings, rather than the usual front-and-center spot reserved for vocalists. But placement could hardly circumvent mismatched styles. Tenor Rodrick Dixon came across best, with melting legato and a sweet tone tailor-made for oratorio, and while Eric Owens’ bass-baritone was paler than in performances past, he skated by on elegance and superior pitch. Karen Cargill impressed when she let her substantial instrument ring out fully, as she did in the Agnus Dei, but she frequently sounded covered and wan. Despite a pretty tone, soprano Jennifer Rowley relied too heavily on vibrato throughout the performance. By-and-large, this was operatic Beethoven, less a complement than an impediment to the finely tuned work happening elsewhere. 

**111