In Canton, a Circuitous Path to a Somber Haydn Mass

United StatesUnited States Purcell (Stokowski), Stravinsky, Haydn: Heather Phillips (soprano), Sandra Ross (mezzo-soprano), Tim Culver (tenor), Michael Roemer (baritone), Canton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz and Dr. Britt Cooper (conductors), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 23.3.2019. (TW)

Purcell (Arr. Leopold Stokowski): Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas

Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite

Haydn: Mass No.9 in C Major – Missa in tempore belli

 It would seem that the timing of this concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra — a few weeks into Lent — was no accident. If the mission was to leave the audience awed enough to ponder and savor heavenly matters, it was ultimately accomplished with glorious panache. But the road to get there was paved with strange intentions.

The evening began on a decidedly funereal note with the Leopold Stokowski transcription of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. Purcell’s 1688 chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas, was based on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, and tells of Dido, Queen of Carthage, her love for for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her suicidal despair when he abandons her to return to Italy. Dido’s Lament was named for the story’s final aria, among the most arresting moments in all of opera: ‘When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me but forget my fate’.

Stokowski once offered this observation to fellow conductors: ‘We have to try to understand and give to the listening public what we consider was in the mind of the composer’. CSO assistant conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz clearly took that sage advice to heart. He let Stokowski’s sublime arrangement for lush-sounding strings do all the singing and  directed his attentions to the slowly unfolding layers of the bittersweet melody, beautifully augmented by principal cellist, Brian Klickman.

One might reasonably hope that after the searing emotionality of the lament, the next selection would offer something less morose, more uplifting, or at least gracefully optimistic. Instead, Stravinsky’s suite of eight pieces from his ballet, Pulcinella, was an oddly frenetic interlude in this context. After drinking so deeply of Dido’s pathos, the suite had all the grace of a hiccup, even in its most pleasant moments.

The fault was neither in the orchestra’s adventurous performance nor in the brisk conducting by Jaroszewicz. In 1920, Stravinsky was impassioned by the charming simplicity he encountered in choral and instrumental scores by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (and a handful of other forgotten composers) and reworked them for his ballet score. If the result sounds like a somewhat scatterbrained exercise in thematic meandering, it is only because it reflects the dual nature of Pulcinella himself. He was a comic hero who became a stock character in 17th-century Neapolitan commedia dell’arte productions. Depending on a given scenario, he could be a crass, silly bumpkin, or a proud, witty thief — and often both.

As it was, the orchestra pranced through the spasmodic twists of harmonies, textures, and rhythms with giddy abandon. Fortunately, the intermission afforded enough distance from such worldly wanderings so we could more calmly prepare for passage into loftier realms. After all, we were about to be taken to church.

Responding to a complaint that the ending of one of his Masses was too frolicsome, Haydn said, ‘I cannot write them otherwise. When I think of God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes gush forth as from a fountain. Since God has given me a joyful heart, He will forgive me for having served Him joyfully.’ Haydn composed Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War) in the autumn of 1796, a notably unjoyful time. France and Austria were at war, and Napoleon’s army was advancing toward Vienna.

Under the commanding baton of Dr. Britt Cooper, director of the Canton Symphony Chorus, the musicians delivered a reverent, brilliantly paced account. Cooper’s meticulous sensitivity to the ebb and flow of expressive dynamics was impeccable, and the vocal quartet was spellbinding: the crystalline luster of soprano Heather Phillips, the steady warmth of mezzo-soprano Sandra Ross, the radiance of tenor Tim Culver, and the robust sonority of baritone Michael Roemer. Additionally, the large chorus summoned up astonishing clarity and power, and always in perfect balance with the orchestra.

While Haydn effectively implied some of the wartime angst of his day in the final part of this Mass, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), the stunning music eventually soars above the morbid. Yes, it begins with the chorus voicing an urgent, somber plea for mercy amid the encroaching timpani in an ominous march. But bright trumpet fanfares signal hope, and the chorus begins to voice divine assurance in a dance-like rhythm, repeating dona nobis pacem (‘grant us peace’).

On this occasion, Haydn’s notes gushed forth as from a fountain. In the end, not only God, but we too, had been served joyfully.

Tom Wachunas

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