Forty-five members of the Annapolis Chorale scaled a musical Mount Everest Tuesday night.
They sang through Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" as part of the Chorale's "Summer Sing" series at the Great Hall on the campus of St. John College for the first time.
The sprawling, complex, altogether extraordinary "solemn mass" that absorbed the deaf, unhappy composer for four years late in his life won't be on a chorale program until May. But it is the toughest choral work there is.
"Gather your intestinal fortitude together," conductor Ernest Green told his troops with a smile. "Those of you singing this in May -- you'd better start learning now!"
Beethoven was notoriously tough on singers; he was a composer wholeheartedly indifferent to the task of making his music sit comfortably in the voice. The famous "Ode to Joy" of the 9th Symphony, for example, lies impossibly high in all four voice parts. It's tough enough to get the notes out, let alone sing them with style and balance them dynamically. But with a twenty-minute duration, give or take, it's possible just to suck it .. up and get it done.
The "Missa Solemnis", on the other hand, lasts three times as long and demands far more musically, technically and emotionally. It runs the gamut of moods and feelings, reflecting both the diversity of the liturgy and the monumentality of Beethoven's own spiritual struggles.
For nearly 80 minutes, a chorus must focus as it's never focused before, lest the dizzying "In Gloria Dei Patris" fugue or the twin monster passages in "Et Vitam Venturi" fall apart. Without absolute concentration and mastery, countless exposed, treacherous entrances will be muffed and extraordinary moments like the hair-raising military battle in the "Agnus Dei" and the mystical ascension of the spirit at "Et Incarnatus Est" will fail to occur.
Without a doubt, it's the tallest order around, which explains why these devoted singers are introducing themselves to Beethoven some nine months before the concert.
As always at the "Summer Sing," an attempt by the chorale to introduce its members and others to the music it will be singing in the coming season, maestro Green not only conducts the music, but educates his singers about it's miraculous content:
"This is such a hallmark of Beethoven; the Sforzando. That's the rhythmic oddity that puts the stress right where he wants it. Look how it drives the music forward!"
"I love the rough-hewn quality here. This isn't 18th-century Austrian farmer music. Not Beethoven."
"Notice how he plays with rhythmic emphasis here. The bar lines disappear. Just like in Brahms, remember?"
So this is how the area's premiere choral group gets it done. They do it partly for themselves, partly for their conductor and partly for next May's audience. But perhaps, they also do it for the composer. After all, remember Beethoven's final words: "I shall hear in heaven," he said.
Annapolis Chorale schedule
SUNDAY, SEPT. 27
St. Anne's Church, Annapolis; 3 p.m., with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra. First solo performance. Works by Holst, Vivaldi, Copland and Tchaikovsky, including Holst's St. Paul Suite.
SUNDAY NOV. 1
St. Anne's Church, Annapolis; 3 p.m., with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra. Debut of the Annapolis Youth Chorus. Bruckner, Stambaugh, Gooding and Tavener compositions, including Gooding's Missa Brevis.
FRIDAY, DEC. 11
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Annapolis; 8 p.m., with the Annapolis Chamber Chorus, Youth Chorus and Chamber Orchestra. A celebration of Christmas and benefit for the Chorale and Pathways, the new adolescent drug treatment center.
SATURDAY AND SUNDAY, DEC. 19-20
St. Anne's Church, Annapolis; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, with the Annapolis Chamber Chorus and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra. Handel's Messiah. Part I only on Sunday.
SATURDAY, FEB. 27
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Annapolis; 8 p.m., with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra. An evening of musical theater, featuring Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Jerome Kern, Andrew Lloyd Weber and more.
SATURDAY, MARCH 27
St. Anne's Church, Annapolis; 8 p.m., with the Annapolis Chamber Chorus, Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, and guest )R organist Daniel Hathaway of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio. Selections from Bach, Rheinberger, Boccherini and Haydn, including Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass.
SATURDAY, MAY 1
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Annapolis; 8 p.m., with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.