Rarely heard, major work by Beethoven Saturday

Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Boulder Chamber Chorale: Mass in C

By Peter Alexander March 30 at 5:45 p.m.

“What are the chances to go to a Beethoven concert and hear something you never heard before?”

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.

Bahman Saless is talking about the next concert he will conduct with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 1; details below). The orchestra, with the Boulder Chamber Chorale and soloists, will present Beethoven’s Mass in C major, written at the height of the composer’s fame and accomplishment but rarely performed today. The performance will be introduced by Beethoven’s very dramatic Overture to Coriolanus.

“This is your chance to imagine yourself, having lived in Beethoven’s time, and the master has just announced a new piece of music and you’re going to go hear it,” Saless says. “To me that’s really cool!”

Vicki Burrichter, who leads the Boulder Chamber Chorale and prepared the singers for the performance, thinks the Mass in C should be better known and appreciated. “I don’t really understand why its not more popular,” she says. “I think it’s one of the best choral pieces there is. I absolutely love it.”

When Beethoven wrote his Mass in C in 1807, he was an accomplished composer who already had many of his greatest works to his credit. He had completed his first four symphonies, his first four piano concertos, nine string quartets including the “Razumovksy” quartets Op. 59, and his Violin Concerto, among other works. He would soon complete his Fifth and Sixth symphonies.

Nonetheless, he is believed to have been less secure undertaking the Mass in C. It was his first setting of what had been one of the most important musical forms of the 18th century and before. Furthermore, the Mass was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, which meant that Beethoven was following in the footsteps of his teacher Joseph Haydn, who had written six highly successful mass settings for the Esterhazy court.

The finished Mass is considered a major work, if somewhat unorthodox for the times—like many of the pieces Beethoven wrote. The musicians didn’t particularly like it and the rehearsals were chaotic, with only one of five altos in the chorus present, leaving the others to sightread the premiere. 

Vicki Burrichter with the Boulder Chamber Chorale

The first performance was not a success. The Prince disliked the Mass, and the work was seldom performed afterwards. Beethoven did only portions of the Mass once in December 1808, on a famous concert that included premieres of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra.

Performances remain rare, but contemporary judgment of the Mass is more positive. Burrichter summed it up, saying “It’s been overshadowed by (Beethoven’s) Missa Solemnis and the Ninth (Symphony). It’s very dramatic, as only Beethoven can be, it’s immediately emotional from the first bar, and it continues that way the entire time. What Beethoven does with it is the kind of thing that only Beethoven can do.

“It’s not the Ninth in terms of overwhelming power, but I think it comes mighty close.”

The mass lasts less than an hour. To open the concert, Saless selected another work by Beethoven, his Overture to Coriolanus. “To me, that is the most perfect piece of dramatic music,” he says. “There is just nothing like it, because it’s eight minutes long, it carries emotions and content that could be a Mahler Symphony!”

Saless also discovered another reason that Coriolanus makes an ideal opener for the Mass. The overture is written in C minor, and after all of its drama it ends very softly with three unison Cs. This sets up the beginning of the Mass, which begins with the basses singing a unison C. That is followed by a move to C major, which will have immediate impact in performance.

Saless thought, “what kind of effect would that have on the audience?” And he decided it would be “a very Beethoven-esque approach to affecting the audience mentally and emotionally! And the connection from the C minor to just C and then C major makes a lot of sense.”

For audience members hearing the Mass for the first time—which will probably be most—Burrichter has some advice. “The Kyrie that starts (the first movement of the Mass) is just melodically so beautiful. People should listen for the beauty of that melody and then listen for its return at the end. And listen for the way that the soloists intertwine with the orchestra and the chorus.

“I think people will absolutely love it.”

# # # # #

Beethoven: Mass in C
Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With the Boulder Chamber Chorale, Vicki Burrichter, artistic director
Cristin Colvin, soprano; Gabrielle Razafinjatovo, mezzo-soprano; Paul Wolf, tenor; Brandon Tyler Padgett, bass

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1
Boulder Seventh-Day Adventist Church
345 Mapleton, Boulder


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