Missa Solemnis: Into the Air
On Saturday I performed Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the SSC and SSO.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
Missa Solemnis is a challenging piece of work. Besides being regarded as one of the greatest choral compositions, it is infamous for the technically difficult singing required in the third movement, Credo. I spent a long time wrestling my tongue around the fugue at bar 375 with moderate albeit not complete success.
Free Advice Worth Every Penny
In Missa, the bulk of the choir's work is over at the end of Credo but, as a singer, it is a mistake to breath a sigh of relief once this is done. On Saturday, we managed to pull through the first three movements with relative success (unless, of course, your relatives are the Chicago Symphony Chorus in which case we would have been judged a less favourably... but I digress...). Even Sanctus was handled fairly well. But our undoing was "the easy part."
In my yoga class, the instructor is always reminding us that lying on our back doing nothing is "the easiest position for the body, the hardest for the mind." Indeed the last movement, Agnus Dei, presented the same challenge. There is not much to sing and yet getting it right requires a mental focus we seemed incapable of producing on the evening. The choir has a number of entry points between long passages of instrumental bits and soloist parts. By the time one arrives at Agnus Dei, they've been on their feet for the better part of an hour, are fairly tired vocally, mentally, physically and... well perhaps not as on the ball as the movement requires.
We would have probably benefited from more time with the orchestra for this movement in order to get used to our cues... which we were quite used to coming from a piano but not necessarily so from the string section. Not that it was a train wreck - it wasn't. But it was not world class. The only consolation is that the whole piece is so complicated that few audience members, at this point, would have realised that this is NOT what it's supposed to sound like!
So my free advice is that if you plan to sing Missa Solemnis, don't assume that mastering the fugues is all that it takes. It takes a huge amount of concentration and a thorough understanding of how your part fits in with all the other parts, including orchestra and solos. Of course this is always true but factor in your general fatigue at the end of an hour of singing and you will realise that if you lie on your back, unless you keep your eyes open, you will fall asleep.