Often good things happen for the wrong reasons. The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director, Robert Moody, wanted the opening concert of this season, Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, to feature the newly renovated Kotzschmar Organ.
As a result, a packed house heard a rare live performance of Leoš Janáček’s great tribute to pan-Slavism, the Glagolitic Mass, with full chorus, soloists, organ and augmented orchestra.
The work, one of the towering masterpieces of 20th-century music, not only has a strange name – that of an early alphabet intended to unify all Slavic peoples – but is also extremely difficult to perform.
It was very well sung by the Choral Art Society and four soloists, soprano Angela Fout Nolle, alto Rita Litchfield, tenor Daniel Stein and baritone Aaron Engebreth. But, there were many passages in which their voices were overpowered by the orchestra.
The organ part, including a penultimate solo movement, was played by municipal organist Ray Cornils, demonstrating that the renovated Kotzschmar is both responsive and unforgiving.
The Mass is long, which led to a rude dash for the exits before the applause had died down, but it is so varied that it holds the interest throughout. Janáček has the unique voice peculiar to all great composers, with its own harmonic flavor and melody, along with a rhythm characteristic of the language and folk songs of his birthplace, Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic.
Janáček is known for his operas, and the music of the Mass is highly descriptive of nature in all its moods. The Old Slavonic words often seem but a pretext for picturing the wind in the pines, the animals of the forest and even the turning of the world on its axis. The Lamb of God is a real lamb, with symbolic significance.
The orchestra, as conducted by Moody, was able to capture these moods superbly. One example among many was the effectively menacing atmosphere of the Kyrie.
The programing attempted to balance the Mass with three lollipops: a piece of bombastic fluff by Dmitri Shostakovich, the Festive Overture, Op. 96, held down by the weight of the organ; the Humoresque, Op. 101, No. 7 of Antonín Dvorák, which was an old chestnut before the blight of 1910; and the Ninth Symphony’s younger brother, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80, also known as the Choral Fantasy.
The latter was an opportunity to show off the considerable pianistic talent of Maine’s own Henry Kramer, and the excellent part singing of the Choral Art Society.
All were works that used to grace pops concerts, but no longer do, alas.
WHAT: Organ & Choral Spectacular, opening the 90th season of the Portland Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: Sept. 30
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland