Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh Perform Mozart and Copland

Mendelsshon Choir performs Mozart's Mass in C-Minor and Coplands "In the Beginning." Photo: Alisa Garin

Following this Sunday’s performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Great Mass” in C-minor and Aaron Copland’s a cappella masterpiece “In the Beginning,” I had some difficultly grappling with my conclusion that Copland had outdone Mozart.  Much of this feeling, perhaps, was due to a fantastic performance by countertenor Andrey Nemzer, a regular member of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and recent winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 National Council Auditions.  Mr. Nemzer and the choir had the good fortune of working with the great Mildred Miller-Posvar, who made the premiere recording of the work for Columbia with Copland himself in 1965.  If the performance was any indication of Ms. Posvar’s coaching, “Millie” is due a great deal of credit as Mr. Nemzer illuminated the cavernous gothic sanctuary of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, yielding wonderfully to Copland’s direction that the soloist sing “in a gentle, narrative manner, like reading a familiar and oft-told story.”  The precision of Mr. Nemzer’s countertenor brought forth the text with excellent clarity, leaving me without the urge to consult my program.

Andrey Nemzer performs Copland's "In the Beginning" with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.Photo: Alisa GarinIt is surely a triumph for countertenors everywhere to see the rapid success of someone like Mr. Nemzer in so many visible venues.  Leaving behind the archaic notions of the countertenor as an oddity of “period performance” or an eccentricity of another age, Sunday’s performance shows that the success of any performance is due to nothing more than superior musicianship and artistry, rather than established ideas of who should be singing in what range.  I am, of course, suggesting the question of gender when it comes to the voice.  Let me be clear that a countertenor is not a man that sings like a woman, but is a man who sings in a certain tessitura, that is most commonly the contralto range but may extend all the way up to high soprano.  In fact, the countertenor possesses a timbre and quality that is unique to a man’s voice and can add a special color to an entire choir (in which the alto section is peopled by men) or a solo passage, as in Sunday’s performance.  A fitting analogy is to think of a flugelhorn, a cornet and a trumpet, or a silver flute and a wooden flute; these are similar instruments that play in the same range and read the same literature but have very special qualities peculiar to their construction.

While the Mendelssohn Choir, reduced in numbers, complemented Mr. Nemzer very well with balance and poise, I did feel a slight rush in director Betsy Burleigh’s tempi, as some of the more interesting and dramatic harmonic moments seemed to fly by.  In particular were those instances when Copland breaks his diatonic harmony to emphasize each day of creation (first, second, third, etc.) by collapsing the chord inward and coloring it with a sudden dissonance.  I would have preferred a slight pause on those moments.  Some of this lack of clarity may also be attributed to the performance space, which clouded much of the sound.  That said, the choir remained on pitch and very effectively drew me into Copland’s “bedtime story” approach.

Backtracking to the Mozart, concertgoers were treated to a full orchestra and an army of soloists who were hand-selected from the choir.  There is, inevitably, a great deal of risk in drawing such a wash of soloists from the ensemble due to the unavoidable imbalance in vocal ability and quality.  I did feel that while this risk crystallized to a degree, it was an impressive showcase and testament to Ms. Burleigh’s assertion that “a great choir is made of great individual voices.”  That said, the heat of my criticism of Sunday’s performance circulates around the over-diversity of the chosen voices, which made for a very confusing whole.  While there were many great performances, the voice that shone most clearly and appropriately in this line-up was soprano Kathy Linger, who performed with a clarity and balance neatly befitting Mozart’s aesthetic.

The booming sanctuary of the church created the most serious balance issues of the afternoon during the Mozart, due to the forces involved.  After hearing the Copland, however, and in the moments of reflection that followed, I think that my over all issue with the Mozart (and forgive me for blaspheming) is that I didn’t like the piece!  There is some question as to why Mozart never finished his “Great Mass” in C-minor, to which Ms. Burleigh romantically speculates theories related to events in Mozart’s life interfering.  As much as I would like to agree, I wonder if Mozart failed to complete this busy work, simply because it wasn’t going very well.  The program notes describe a work of great complexity and length, filled with bombastic counterpoint and far-reaching combinations for solo voices and ensemble configurations reaching eight-part double choir.  Yikes!  In light of these facts, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to put some of the blame for issues in performance on the composer himself.  As the program asserts, “one can feel the youthful enthusiasm.”  Perhaps, in all his excitement, young Mozart finally canned his “Great Mass” because it simply wasn’t very good.

Photo: Alisa Garin