Los Angeles Music Preview: BEETHOVEN’S MISSA SOLEMNIS (Michael Tilson Thomas and the LA Phil)

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by Tony Frankel on January 3, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Missa Solemnis is one of Beethoven’s last works, and one of his greatest. He labored over it for four years (the most time he ever gave to composing), and then wrote on the completed score, “From the heart, may it go further to the heart!” While the epic Solemn Mass in five movements was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1824, the reimagined, semi-staged, video-infused concert which arrives at Disney Hall this week is a world premiere. Led by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT)—Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra—this major event is also a celebration of the maverick maestro’s 70th birthday.

Beethoven Missa Solemnis

But don’t let his age fool you. I have witnessed MTT in action at his home base this past year, including a glorious semi-staged production of Peter Grimes. The indefatigable L.A. native remains as insightful, youthful, and emotional as he was the first time I heard him, which was on the 1977 CBS recording of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3. It was this amazing album which also introduced me to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the estimable outfit that will be playing Missa Solemnis January 9-11, 2015.

MTT Album cover

This program is second in LA Phil’s new in/SIGHT series, which combines awe-inspiring music by groundbreaking composers with jaw-dropping visuals from renowned artists. The first program was Edgard Varèse’s Amériques (see review), a revolutionary experience which opened the doors for a whole new classical music audience. I call it the Laserium of the 21st century.


Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985, MTT returns to the podium with a work so gargantuan in size that it is rarely performed live. Running approximately 80 minutes, Beethoven’s score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, organ, and strings. For the singers, MTT (who also conceived this project) has amassed soloists who have performed at the world’s best opera houses: soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Brandon Jovanovich, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. The four-part chorus will be made up of the sterling Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and the world-class Los Angeles Master Chorale (Grant Gershon, artistic director).


The immersive experience, a co-production with SF Symphony, is directed by James Darrah, who helmed Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels with the LA Phil, as well as the aforementioned Peter Grimes. Darrah leads the new LA-based production and design company Chromatic: a collective of interdisciplinary artists who collaborate to create aesthetic theatrical events across blurring mediums which prioritize narrative over convention. The video design is by Finn Ross, who will be animating the text of the piece as part of this stage and multimedia extravaganza (Ross’s spectacular work includes Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). The lighting is designed by David Finn, who has been illuminating dance, opera, and theater across the globe for decades.

Image from Finn Ross's video design for Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with Michael Tilson Thomas

Missa Solemnis was completed the same year as Beethoven’s beloved Symphony No. 9, yet the composer favored his Mass setting, declaring it “the greatest work I have composed so far.” Unlike some of Beethoven’s more explicitly thematic work and archetypal symphonies, however, this is a more challenging work to digest in one listen. Because of its grandiose scale which is demanding to perform, it is impractical to produce, and it actually isn’t a good fit for a Catholic Church service. This is why a staged version is both a masterstroke and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even if you are familiar with this radical work, you will find this staging to turn your experience of this masterpiece inside out. Also, there are $20 seats available, so anyone can discover why musicologist Jean Swafford describes Missa Solemnis as “the greatest piece never heard.”

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photos courtesy of LA Phil

Missa Solemnis
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave
Friday, January 9, 2015 at 8:00
Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 8:00
Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 2:00
Upbeat Live talks with Veronika Krausas begin one hour before the performance
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit www.LAPhil.com


Kimberly Fox January 11, 2015 at 10:57 am

Saw it last night. Have many opinions. Curious / looking forward to your review.

Tony Frankel January 12, 2015 at 12:29 am

I hadn’t planned on doing a review, Kimberly, so I am curious to know your thoughts.

I will encapsulate my thoughts, however: I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Missa is indeed a wondrous work, but it is so thick with monumental musical ideas that repeat listenings to one movement at a time–not to mention a scholarly lecture–would be the best way to truly appreciate the piece. That said, Michael Tilson Thomas’s extraordinary program notes were invaluable and I’m glad I read them before the performance began.

While I believe a 90-minute run time could have been shaved with a more driving tempo at times, MTT did an astounding job. Darrah’s direction, which had soloists roaming about the Hall and the Boys’ choir exuberantly jumping on and off stage, beautifully detracted from the effort it took to take the Missa in at once. I can’t believe the sounds that came from that stage–truly magnificent. Combined with the dazzling multimedia work, the concert was a success.

While I loved the experience, my concertgoing companion began to drift off, and some patrons around me were quietly talking, and another was texting–which tells me they had a disconnect. I chalk that up to the Missa‘s inherent impenetrability. To quote MTT, “Like many ambitious works written for large forces it can strangle on its own complexity and majesty. With so many people doing so many things at the same place and time, it can be difficult to follow the music’s many strands.”

Because of the staging, which consistently re-positioned singers, and the inventive way singing assignments were divvied out, I was on board the whole time. In fact, I felt bad that I won’t be able to see it again when it plays with San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall later this year.

Kimberly Fox January 12, 2015 at 1:18 am

Hi Tony – I appreciate your notes and thank you so much for kibitzing with me about this!

I was more mixed on the experiment. You’re right, the Missa is dense. No question about that. So general audience “literacy” is going to be low, because it’s just not done that often. Therefore, the whole question of audience appeal is tough with this canonical masterwork.

I’m monitoring this impulse to go multi-media for orchestral concerts pretty closely. And what I’m struggling with is the value proposition of quality musical performance vs spectacle because the producer doesn’t really trust the material (feels the need to guild the lily as it were) vs a quality total experience (music + spectacle) that blows open meaning from the original text (or in this case, musical composition)–where the collaborators are of equal stature.

For example: I’m not really convinced that a Missa Solemnis (emphasis on Solemn) matches sensibilities with scurrying boys choir members to keep things interesting.

Also, I thought the video artist sort of ran out of useful ideas around Credo time. But I loved the **idea** of the lighting grid+screen in general. I’d like to see the LA Phil to tap a video artist and movement director who are **on par** with MTT and Beethoven to take the thing to the level of art. I don’t think we got that this weekend.

(For my money I’d rather the LA Phil gave all the extra $$ to Mark Morris to give us a glorious choreography to go with the piece, because I thoroughly trust his musical instincts…moreso than this weekend’s videographer or movement director.)

On the whole, I’d score the LA Phil experiments in this area as mostly guilding the lily…more spectacle than truly new art form. (Not 100% however: I thought the Bill Viola / Tristan was brilliant.)

But I’m going to keep attending, because I’m very interested in the larger issues of audience building (or retention) in these days of declining classical music literacy or interest. And I like to keep score on what people are up to…!



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