There aren’t too many more ambitious pieces of music one could choose to celebrate a birthday than Beethoven's Missa solemnis. Leave it to the septuagenarian native Angeleno Michael Tilson Thomas to program it for his visit to LA, an event in and of itself. But that wasn’t enough. No, these performances were conceived by MTT as semi-staged, complete with lighting and video. In his own words, “the mission of this performance is to create more space around the music allowing us to better follow the streams of Beethoven’s thought” – a laudable aim for such a formidable work. Backed by the LA Phil, LA Master Chorale and outstanding soloists, Friday’s performance was certainly noteworthy.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

In his copious program notes, Tilson Thomas dissects the work and explains the stylistic techniques and references meticulously. Yet as convincing as his vision is, the translation to the stage was inconsistent. In practice, the production was often sensorily overwhelming. Beginning with a bright flash of light (David Finn’s most obvious contribution to the evening), the listener was transported inside a towering cathedral. Video was abstract, and ever changing, suggesting wandering through church arches or displaying falling fragments of the sung text. The soloists were nearly constantly in motion, often in coordinated pairs based on the musical motives being sung. In the most saturated movements such as the opening to the Kyrie, it was a lot to take in, with the listener’s attention darting from one feature to another, on several planes of the stage. 

While the basic features of the musical texture were highlighted, the stylistic varieties Beethoven used were little enhanced by parsing some of the music to the 20-voiced chamber choir of the LA Master Chorale, alternate soloists, and boys choir, the fantastic Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Beethoven’s majestic double fugue at the end of the Credo, highlighted in the program notes, was little explained by the video design, far too abstract to provide a truly informative musical illustration. It seems that portraying “the streams of Beethoven’s thought” in a concert setting may be a pretty impossible challenge.

More compelling were the dramatically motivated movements onstage. The frenzy of the Gloria, with the boys rushing onstage, matched the excitement of Beethoven’s musical creation. Video designer Finn Ross found the most success in the dramatic narrative of the Credo, with beautifully conceived abstractions of the Passion evolving onscreen. 

But the most successful sequence of the evening was the Benedictus. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour left his downstage seat to join the vocal soloists, elevated behind the orchestra. His resplendent solo, entirely memorized, was the focal point for the adoring singers. Rather than being musically illustrative it was an imaginative portrayal of Beethoven’s music. Chalifour was he “qui venit in nomine Domini”.  

Likewise, the opening of the Agnus Dei gave the listener a small dramatic window to the music, when the tortured bass-baritone (sung with a smooth, authoritative weight by Luca Pisaroni) fell penitent to his knees, surrounded by the sympathetic soloists. Both movements were revelatory to the performance, illustrating the relatable possibilities of narrative.

Tilson Thomas painted his reading with a broad brush which further complicated the musical elucidation. The sound of the orchestra was majestic, to be sure, but washes of sound were more common than acutely attended details and clarity of texture. In fact, the moderate-sized orchestra was often drowned out by the full-throated Los Angeles Master Chorale. The latter’s typical attentiveness to textual nuance was lacking, leading to a somewhat static contribution.

The vocal soloists were uniformly excellent, led by Joélle Harvey whose sparkling soprano was angelic with an easy pianissimo. Completely off book, the soloists were deeply invested in the vision of the production, performing their deportment with focus. Tamara Mumford’s burnished mezzo was imposing despite losing some steam in the final movement, and Brandon Jovanovich’s tenor was noble and easy. All were fine singers for such demanding music.

The production seemed to alternate between musical illustration and narrative. Rather than being able to combine the two aims, it showed much more success in the latter and stage director James Darrah showed flashes of brilliance in his execution of that facet of MTT’s vision. If anything, the production could use even more imagination, suggestion of abstractions wasn’t enough. The first three movements are loud, long and complex. The more tangible, or at least relatable, approach of a narrative, whether actual or invented, to act out the music might be much more successful as the final two movements of the evening proved. 

The emotional language of the Missa solemnis is universal and it is key. While Beethoven is the ultimate party music, the moments of transcendence imparted through the deep emotional illustrations of the music will remain the events most worth celebrating – a birthday gift worthy of a maestro.