Lindberg’s “Al longo” and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”

The New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, June 23.

I haven’t attended many Philharmonic concerts over the past year or so, and as I sat through this one, the finale for the 2009–2010 season, I settled upon one reason why: I hate Avery Fisher Hall. The venue has a reputation for bad acoustics that, frankly, seems deserved. From what I’ve read, much has been done over the years to improve the space and—who knows?—maybe those efforts have created a better experience for listeners down on the floor in the orchestra seats. I, however, routinely sit along the side of the hall in its third tier, and from that vantage point, phasing and balance issues are nearly always noticeable. I’m perfectly content sitting in the cheap seats at the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall, but in Avery Fisher, a cheap seat inevitably feels like a very cheap seat. Attending concerts there can be tantalizing. Too often, something feels off about otherwise marvelous music, and it’s frustrating, in part because I don’t know who to blame. The musicians? The conductor? The hall itself? If I’d forked over more money, would I be hearing a better performance? I don’t know.

The performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis Wednesday exemplified that kind of experience. The New York Choral Artists sounded wonderful, but the soloists did not. They dragged. Their voices strained against one another without balance or blend, often muddling into a mess of centerless vibrato. At the time, I blamed the soloists, but in retrospect, I’m not entirely sure that’s fair, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, the concert was less than I had hoped. Why should it matter why?

I don’t want to overstate myself here. The performance certainly wasn’t bad. For one thing, Missa Solemnis is a fascinating work: Classical and Romantic and even Baroque all at once. The “Credos” from most Masses bore me—covering the laundry list of the Nicene Crede often leads to overlong, perfunctory writing—but Beethoven’s “Credo” is glorious, my favorite movement of the Solemnis’s five. The three prongs of the trinitarian creed feel musically differentiated, and the work culminates in a marvelous fugue, one of several in the Mass. Fugues (which I almost always adore) can be difficult for choirs to perform, but the New York Choral Artists, led by conductor Alan Gilbert, acquitted themselves beautifully, knitting their distinct melodic lines into a perfect polyphonic tapestry.

The “Sanctus” was another highlight—particular the second half, on the “Benedictus” text, when the solo violin arcs over the vocalists and all the other instrumentalists with its heavenly melodic line. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow’s playing was ardent and warm, elevating everyone around him. Even the other soloists didn’t drive me so crazy during the “Sanctus.” The soprano, in particular, floated her long extended notes with surprising delicacy.

But in general, the vocal soloists simply didn’t gel, and the balance between the orchestral elements seemed off-kilter, unwhole. That wasn’t so much an issue with the other work on the program, Magnus Lindberg’s “Al longo,” but then again, I didn’t care so much about that one, and as it was the world premiere of an entirely new piece, I wouldn’t know whether the balance was off anyway.

Lindberg’s title refers to the sea, specifically to being in the middle of the ocean and seeing nothing but vast horizon in any direction. It’s an evocative phrase for an almost too evocative work, for once I got the sea idea in my head, it dictated how I heard everything: The swirling phrases could only be waves, the fanfares could only denote naval ships, and the great stacked chords could only describe the ocean’s depths. That expressivity was interesting but sort of limiting and repetitive, too. I enjoyed “Al longo,” but I was ready for it to be over about fifteen minutes into the twenty-five-minute work.

Reading over what I’ve written here, my words feel too grouchy to me. I did enjoy the concert, particularly the choir’s performance, and I’m glad I went. But as I look toward instrumental concerts next season at Lincoln Center, I have to admit I’m learning more toward chamber music. Those concerts are generally held in Alice Tully Hall, and that is a damn great venue.

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