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S & H International Concert Review

Sven-David Sandström: High Mass (1993-94), Soloists, World Voices, VocalEssence Chorus & Orchestra, Philip Brunelle, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, 3rd May 2003 (BH)


Marcy Richardson, soprano
Dara Kirchofner Scholz, soprano
Lori Lewis, soprano
Susan Sacquitne Druck, mezzo-soprano
Lisa Drew, contralto
World Voices, Karle Erickson, director
VocalEssence Chorus with orchestra
Sigrid Johnson, associate conductor
Philip Brunelle, artistic director and conductor
Orchestra Hall
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In 1994, noted Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström surprised many of his colleagues by writing a Catholic mass, using Bachís B-Minor as a jumping-off point, and then further shocked listeners by abandoning some of the more "difficult" (his word, not mine) tonalities found in some of his earlier music, and serving this text in an unusually striking, eclectic style. Although the work was performed in Europe shortly after it was completed (and there is an excellent recording on Caprice), this was its first professional performance in the United States, following its debut by forces at Indiana University in the fall of 2002.

This piece is a monumental boulder, with a raw and piercing quality that lingered with me for days afterward. The forces are almost as large as those required for a Mahler score: an enormous chorus, five vocal soloists (three sopranos and two altos), all welded together by a huge orchestra with additional percussion, including four sets of chimes. From where I was sitting in the back of the first tier, the workís intense vocal demands made an almost physical impact.

During a pre-concert talk, Sandström remarked, only half-jokingly, that the word "high" in the title also refers to the vocal range. My guess is that no one onstage would disagree. Few compositions involving the human voice are as taxing to sing. Every part is often just a hairbreadth away from screaming. Afterward, some singers confided that they really had no idea how effective the piece was, because they were so immersed in monitoring how their voices were holding up. (Not to encourage shredded vocal chords, but those onstage should be publicly thanked for enduring a bit of minor vocal abuse, allowing us the chance to experience this intense and remarkable score.)

Opening with violent, slashing chords in the orchestra, the piece then tears omnivorously through all sorts of sonic territory -- now fierce, now humane, and never dull. Sandströmís language mixes Ligeti-esque tone clusters, subtle use of spoken syllables, moments of Mahlerian tonal sweep, and occasional elements of jazz, in twenty-five well-etched sections whose cumulative power I could not have anticipated.

There are too many provocative moments to list them all, but several stand out. In a short sequence during "Qui sedes ad dextram patris," the five soloists take flight, as if as one, rising quickly to a clustered chord of precipitous high notes, then fall back down as quickly as they ascended. It takes all of five seconds, but thatís all the time needed to take your breath away. Much later, the ominous "Crucifixus" section uses a lurching funeral march, with relentless hammering from the orchestra, intended to depict the nails being driven through Christís hands -- overÖand overÖand over. Slowly the barbarism subsides, and by the end when the chorus finds a new plateau with a message of peace, the music and vocal pyrotechnics have evaporated and been replaced with an otherworldly glow.

Philip Brunelle, long a champion of new and recent music, should be commended for programming and conducting this challenging work that often seems to revel in its juxtaposition of shrill "maximalism" with an almost childlike minimalism. The superb VocalEssence ensemble, combined with World Voices (both Minneapolis-based choral groups) for a total of 150 singers strong (and I do mean "strong" since this piece requires something like athletic ability), and sometimes strained to produce the sounds for which Sandström asks. (This "trying" to hit the notes may be part of the texture he wants.) But given the task, they succeeded beautifully, faced with constantly shifting styles and meters, not to mention the tortured range of high notes.

The enormous orchestra of excellent free-lancers (complete with an augmented percussion section, including all those chimes), sounded more coherent than some groups with players who have worked with each other far more often -- even if their parts were considerably less demanding than the shockingly high choral passages. The five soloists were uniformly outstanding, making a glowing, ethereal ensemble, despite each being handed a unique slate of treacherous vocal parts. No one got off easy in this one.

A piece on this scale carries innumerable risks, not the least of which is whether an audience can summon up the patience for what is, in some sections, something of an aural assault. Although the composerís unusually extended language may have caught some listeners off guard, causing them to abandon ship at intermission -- a shame -- most seemed riveted by the musicís unusual style, coupled with genuine emotion.

At intermission, a friend of one of the singers asked me, somewhat hesitantly, how I was enjoying the evening so far, and I replied that this might possibly be one of the greatest choral works of the last twenty years or so. Time will give it more perspective. It is hard to say whether the forces needed, much less the stamina, will ensure regular performances, but for sheer audacity, there are few pieces like it. It is an astonishing, slightly mad, and yet -- make no mistake -- ultimately a deeply reverent work.

Bruce Hodges

© 2003




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