For three years, choirmaster John Corrie has been orchestrating a grand collaboration of musical organizations to perform Beethoven’s choral masterwork: the Missa Solemnis, one of the great musical settings of the traditional Catholic Mass.
Corrie, a lecturer in music at Bates, is uniquely positioned to muster up the musical forces the piece requires. He is both director of the Bates College Choir and artistic director of the Maine Music Society, which presents popular choral concerts in Lewiston.
Corrie realized his dream of leading Missa Solemnis on April 3, 2016, in Lewiston’s magnificent Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. In a landmark of Maine music-making, he brought together the Bates College Choir, the Maine Music Society Chorale, and the basilica’s Schola Cantorum. Chamber choirs from Lewiston and Edward Little high schools joined the ensemble for a second Beethoven work on the program — bringing the total of voices for the event to more than 180, including four soloists. Supporting this vocal army were 65 instrumentalists from the Bates and Maine Music Society orchestras.
Of course, weeks of rehearsals preceded the concert.
For Corrie, and for most of the musicians, this will be the first performance of the piece. After weeks and months of rehearsals in other locations, he brings all his singers and players together at the basilica for three rehearsals starting March 28.
Missa Solemnis comes as Corrie starts his 10th year as music society director. In 2007, he engineered a similar collaboration for a performance, also at the basilica, of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem. This time around, he says, “I wanted to do something that would be an appropriate challenge for everyone, and Missa Solemnis would have been very difficult to do with just the college choir or just the Maine Music Society.”The first rehearsal at Maine’s only basilica “was really an emotional experience,” says soprano Jackie Ordemann ’15 — “just finally hearing everything all together and how much more magnificent it is with all of us.” A veteran of the Bates choir, Ordemann continues to sing for Corrie as a Maine Music Society member. “I’ve never sung in a group this big before, and it’s just been incredible.”
The run-up to the concert is grueling. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis not only demands many singers, but, Corrie says, “the demands on the singers are really quite extreme. It takes a particular interest from people to pull it together.”
In fact, it’s one of the most difficult works in the choral repertoire. “You know, I’ve been in this chorale since it started, back in 1972, and this is by far the hardest music we’ve ever had,” says Maine Music Society tenor Richard Wagner, Bates professor emeritus of psychology.
In addition, the effort of all the rehearsals is adding up. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep,” says another Maine Music Society tenor, Brian Pfohl, assistant in instruction in Bates’ psychology department. But the exertion is worth it.
And besides, Corrie lightens the load. “John is thoughtful, considerate, and open-minded,” says soprano Luette Saul, one of the four vocal soloists and an instructor in voice at Bates. (The other soloists are Saul’s music faculty colleague, mezzo soprano Jazmin DeRice; tenor Martin Lescault; and bass Joshua Miller.)
“John is open to ideas from the orchestra and soloists, and makes sure everyone is taken care of. He’s even had water and snacks for us at rehearsals — rock star treatment.”
“Love him, love him, love him,” adds Wagner. “Even when he’s saying ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Do it in a different way,’ he says it in a very positive, positive way.”
Sunday, April 3, is sunny but stunningly cold and windy. As 4 p.m. approaches and with it the start of the Beethoven concert, musicians and listeners — about 1,100 listeners — gather at the basilica.
“The concert feels extremely special to me since it’s my last-ever Bates Orchestra concert,” says violist Sohee Ki, a senior. She’s happy that her family is coming from Irvine, Calif., to see her play.
“It’s been fun to have this community collaboration,” adds flutist Becky Schwartz ’18 of West Hartford, Conn. “And to work with so many people from different backgrounds and experiences definitely creates a dynamic ensemble. As a performer, you become attuned to new ways of playing the music and are pushed to a higher level.”
Among the arrivals are 65 singers from the high schools, who will join the other choirs and the combined orchestra for the opening work, Beethoven’s Meeres Stille und Glückliche Fahrt (“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”). Bates Orchestra Conductor Hiroya Miura, associate professor of music, will conduct this short setting of two poems by Goethe.
“The wonderful part for the kids from the high schools is that they’ll be able to enjoy performing with professional musicians,” Corrie says.
John Corrie “came to me, telling me of his vision for this afternoon, months ago,” Bates President Clayton Spencer tells a capacity crowd. “So it is truly a thrill and an honor to stand here and anticipate what you’re about to hear.”
Whether in French, English, Spanish, or Latin, the words of the Missa Solemnis — the solemn or “ordinary” Mass — “are the same texts heard every day in this building,” Monsignor Marc Caron, Prince of Peace Parish pastor, reminds the listeners in his welcome.
A strong chord opens the Kyrie and the Missa Solemnis. All eyes are on Corrie, and his clear, firm conducting. The acoustics in the basilica are surprisingly soft and enveloping.
The second movement is the Gloria. Sometimes in close harmony, sometimes in counterpoint, the four vocal soloists’ lines weave in and around each other and into the chorus. The work demands intense concentration. Driven by bass and timpani, borne up by strings and winds, a fugue on “in gloria Dei Patris” — the first of two standout fugues in the piece — swells to fill every crevice in the basilica’s walls.
From the simple four-note motif that opens it, the Credo (”I believe”) expands from a humble expression of faith into a dramatic recounting of the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The movement culminates in the Missa Solemnis’ second fugue, the singers’ biggest challenge in a work known for its rigors.
The Sanctus movement contains the only sustained instrumental solo in the Missa Solemnis — in the capable hands of concertmaster Dean Stein, it’s a violin song that represents the Holy Spirit descending to earth.
The Agnus Dei opens with low strings and woodwinds in a dolorous minor key. The tenors and basses plead, “have mercy on us.” A shift into an uplifting major key accompanies brilliant development in the voices and orchestra, including a militant passage suggestive of the challenges to faith.
The Missa Solemnis ends with the repeated “give us peace” and simple chords whose restraint is unexpected.
A pause — and then, with bouquets for the soloists and smiles all around, the standing ovation rolls on for minutes.