If you are unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis but consider yourself to be savvy about choral-orchestral repertoire, you are not alone. In my 25 years of singing professional choral gigs, I have never had the opportunity to work on it (nor have I had the chance to sing Verdi’s Amneris with Anita Rachvelishvili — congratulations CSO chorus, that was incredible!). From what I gather, the 80 minute mass setting is relentless, as Beethoven tends to be, and feels like a marathon for the chorus and solo quartet, which adds emphasis and provides a contrasting texture rather than breaking out in solo aria moments as in a Mozart or Haydn mass.
Soprano Maeve Höglund was last heard locally in Chicago Opera Theater’s Lucio Silla, a youthful Mozart opera seria with taxing vocal writing at which few excel. I remember Höglund being a standout in COT’s cast — beauty of tone at both extremes of tessitura; accurate, articulated coloratura; a legato line; and committed acting in an unconvincing production. With a resume that includes the extra-difficult roles of Handel’s Cleopatra, Mozart’s Konstanze, and Rossini’s Contessa di Folleville, I imagine her to be an ideal artist to take on the challenge of Beethoven.
Maeve Höglund was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Missa Solemnis. I have condensed her replies.
For audiences unfamiliar with this work, what are some of the musical highlights?
”What stands out to me is that the Missa Solemnis has a feeling of forward momentum, as if it had one steady pulse, and the whole piece can be performed without stopping between movements. Beethoven is so creative in passing the counterpoint from the chorus to the orchestra to the solo quartet— it’s almost like a game of tennis. The melodies are so catchy and brilliant — sometimes he inverts the themes, or turns them into canons — the audience will walk away singing the tunes.
I love singing the Et incarnatus est passage with my colleagues, which is highly exposed for the soloists after the raucous tutti opening of the Credo. In the Sanctus, maestro Kalmar has assigned the Pleni sunt coeli coloratura passage to the soloists, which is a great way to feature us. Also, listen for the violin solo in the Sanctus, which is gorgeous. Another of my favorite moments is the Recitativo colla voce in the Agnus Dei — a dramatic, declamatory entrance for each soloist beginning with the alto. When the Dona nobis pacem text begins, the mood, tempo, and texture switches to what feels like a waltz. It’s a fascinating and colorful example of the genius of Beethoven’s writing.”
What are the challenges in this work for the performers?
”Remaining focused is important. Coloratura passagework, complex rhythms, subdivisions of the beat, and hemiolas abound! The work feels unpredictable, which, for Beethoven’s time, is pretty radical. We can’t assume that we know where the harmonies are leading— they pivot to unexpected places. “
How has singing technically difficult roles like Konstanze and Cleopatra prepared you to tackle Beethoven?
”I think of singing composers like Mozart, Handel, Donizetti, and Beethoven like flossing your teeth — a healthy habit to maintain the integrity of the instrument. These composers write music that ask you to sing with legato and coloratura in the entire span of my range, stretching it and testing it, without causing harm to it. Mozart and Bel canto helps to keep the voice versatile, mobile, and flexible.”
Maeve Höglund is joined by mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller, tenor John Matthew Myers, and bass Michael Sumuel as the soloists for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Carlos Kalmar and Christopher Bell, Chorus Director. Performances are Friday at 6:30 p.m. in the Pritzker Pavilion, and Saturday at 7:30 indoors at the Harris Theater. Höglund will teach a master class for the Project Inclusion Vocal Fellows at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Other Things Happening This Weekend
If you didn’t get enough Baroque opera workshop at last weekend’s Haymarket Summer Opera: The Fairy Queen, stage director & choreographer Sarah Edgar lends her talents to Chicago Vocal Arts Consortium’s workshop of Handel’s Alcina. Two different casts try their hand at Baroque gesture and Handel’s magical score, Friday and Saturday at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church.
VAC loves conductor Anthony Barrese and stage director Amy Hutchinson, who are teaming up to present the jazz-operettta The Flower of Hawaii with Folks Operetta. beginning June 29 at Stage 773. The cast features tenor Rodell Rosel, who regularly steals any scene he is in when at his day job at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
On Sunday, South Shore Opera Company of Chicago presents three “Tremendous Tenors,” a concert featuring Cornelius Johnson III, Luther Lewis III, Henry Pleas III paying tribute in song to the work of generations of black tenors on the opera stage. Maestro Leslie B. Dunner leads the singers and chamber orchestra in a program including works by Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Gershwin and Coleridge Taylor as well as traditional hymns and songs. Soprano Elizabeth Norman hosts the concert and welcomes operatic legend George Shirley with a special tribute. 4 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center.