Mass(ive) Moments of Musical Bliss
by Victoria Looseleaf
Mozart may be the current poster boy for all things classical (the flurry of concerts and activities surrounding the 250th year of his birth still continues around the world), but make no mistake, that other Austrian, namely Franz Joseph Haydn, is equally hot. Part of a musical triumvirate that also included Beethoven (whom he once taught), “Papa Haydn,” so dubbed by Mozart, his friend and protégé, is on the cusp of his own bicentennial. And Angelenos, always priding themselves on being ahead of the curve --- be it in music, architecture, fashion, film or art --- are hip to this fact. Indeed, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, under the splendid musical direction of Grant Gershon, has gotten a jump-start on the 2009 global Haydn celebrations. Rolling out part two of its three-year initiative, “Homage to Haydn,” an exploration of the composer's six final masses, the Chorale, abetted by guest ensemble, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, performs the Lord Nelson Mass (Missa in Angustiis), arguably the most popular of Haydn's late masterworks. Often considered more important musically than either Mozart or Beethoven in that he perfected the sonata form that is the basis for symphonic music as well as having created the string quartet, Haydn enjoyed a fabulous life. Born in 1732, and living to what was then considered the ripe old age of 77, the composer bequeathed the world an amazing legacy that includes 104 symphonies, 14 operas, 50 some concertos, 84 string quartets and 12 masses --- more music, in fact, than any classical titan to date. Son of a farmer and wheelwright, the erstwhile boy singer appeared to lead a charmed life, one wherein he would not only be gainfully employed for nearly four decades by the royal family, Esterhazy, but enjoy a career in which he was the most famous composer of his day. Possessed of a cheerful countenance, Haydn did, however, have a bad marriage and requisite mistress, the Scottish widow Rebecca Schroeter. Were he alive today, though, the composer, who had more connections than Verizon, would, no doubt, have been fodder for bloggers, YouTube postings and BlackBerry textings, as well as having the coolest MySpace page going. But even with his enormous renown, Haydn's sacred choral music is far less familiar than his popular instrumental compositions. Which is not to say that these works are less important. quite the contrary. Props, then, must be given to the Lord Nelson Mass, composed in 53 days and while Haydn suffered from exhaustion. The year was 1798, during which time Haydn was in the service of the third generation of the Esterhazy reign, having just completed The Creation. Naming the mass in Angustiis, which translates as, “a mass in fear, stress or tribulation,” this doesn't sound very Haydnesque (nor is the work obviously sorrowful or fearful), but can be explained by the fact that Haydn was actually experiencing some personal angst or was recognizing the political situation --- acknowledging Nelson's Egyptian victory over Napoleon's fleet at the Nile. The latter, however, is unlikely, as the composer couldn't have known of the victory until after the Mass was finished. That it was performed in September of 1800 for Lord Nelson is, on the other hand, true. No matter, as the dramatic and emotional Mass lives up to the grandeur of the hero Nelson, while it has also been suggested that Haydn inserted a trumpet call to the Benedictus, evoking a courier's own trumpeting the battle news to Esterhazy. What is also known --- unequivocally --- is that the work, originally scored for three trumpets, timpani, strings and organ, is symphonic in form, opening in a mighty D Minor before the entry of the soprano soloist. The unfolding of the Gloria occurs in three sections: a D major allegro, with soloists contrasting with the full choir; a B flat major “Qui tollis,” in adagio mode and opening with a bass solo; and the return of a joyous D major allegro with a fugal ending. The Credo, too, is in three parts, including a G major largo that begins with an affecting soprano solo, “Et incarnates est,” with the “Et resurrexit” traveling from a B minor to a triumphant D major ending, an eddy of strings prominent before the “Amen.” This layering continues with a contemplative adagio as the Sanctus wends its way towards the energetic “Pleni sunt coeli,” while the Benedictus, traversing from D minor to a D major Hosanna in excelsis, then highlights the soprano soloist in a fiendishly difficult high tessitura. The rhythmically vital G major Agnus Dei, another showcase for soloists, crackles with a near beseeching tranquility as it hurtles toward the return of a contrapuntal D major and the words, “Dona nobis pacem.” This Mass, teeming with joyous trumpets, a soaring organ and roaring timpani, brings home the brilliance that is Haydn, leaving listeners to revel in such wondrous music that can surely be thought of as a pipeline to God.
Although the poet Edward Varese once said, “We have so little time to be born to the instant,” the century and a half that separates Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass from Ariel Ramirez' 1963 Misa Criolla melts away with the works' commonality: Both are based on the Mass; both share an ebullient, inviting spirituality. Ramirez, a pianist/composer born in Santa Fe, Argentina in 1921, traveled to Vienna in 1959, where he studied Central European folklore. Embracing that knowledge with his own cultural heritage, the composer mixes Spanish derived folk idioms and Latin-American dance rhythms to arrive at an extraordinary work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, one capturing the spirit of Argentine Creoles, descendants of a cross section of Europeans. Enlivening the work further is Ornili Azulay, Israeli-born flamenco dancer who performs her own choreography during sections of the mass, the best known choral work from South America. Translated from the traditional Latin into Spanish, the uber-rhythmic opus is a perfect match for Azulay, who embodies different expressions of Mary in her exploration of the link between saint and sinner. Beginning with the Kyrie, built around two rhythms --- vidala-baguala, which refers to the lyrical vocal form of Bolivia and northern Argentina --- the opening evokes a sweet modesty that also introduces Azulay's precision footwork. The livelier Gloria, in two sections, is separated by a recitative and makes use of the carnavalito-yaravi, an Andean dance representing the joyful dimension of God's glory, fully complemented by Azulay's mesmerizing tango-like moves. The Mass's most complex movement, the Credo, electrifies with the dance beat of chacarera trunca, a central Argentinean folk theme whose near-obsessive rhythms accentuate the profession of faith, the final words of prayer affirming the triumph of everlasting life. Mining Bolivian folk tunes for the Sanctus (sans Azulay), Ramirez blends the carnival of cochambambino with a subdued but pulsating beat that proclaims God's glory in heaven and earth. Finally, the more melodic, less rhythmic Agnus Dei again features Azulay in full “duende” mode (Spanish for soul). Intimate and tender, it is, simply, a yearning for peace. Like Haydn's mass, whose unflinching spirituality beckons the listener, so, too, does Ramirez' work speak to us in similarly awesome ways, the pair of masterpieces bringing to mind an Arab proverb: “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.”
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, La Opinion and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.