By Laurine Celeste Fox, guest blogger.
On Sunday, April 14, 2013, The Cecilia Chorus of New York, along with members of the Long Island University Post Chorus, gave the New York premiere of Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D Major. The 150+ voices of the choruses were joined by a 55-piece orchestra and vocal soloists Felicia Moore, soprano; Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano; Eric Barry, tenor and Matthew Treviño, bass. The performance was led by Mark Shapiro, music director & conductor of both choruses and, as befits the worth and importance of Smyth’s Mass, it was given a superb performance by the collected forces at Carnegie Hall.
I was unfamiliar with this Mass prior to hearing this performance, and had no idea that it is such an outstanding piece of music. From the opening Kyrie I was struck by the power of the music, and as the work unfolded I was also struck by the highly imaginative use of the choral forces, orchestral forces and solo voices. In addition to the sections for full chorus and orchestra there were sections of music so transparent and intimate (and used so few musicians) that they could only be described as chamber music.
Indeed, in the Credo which followed the Kyrie solo tenor Eric Barry was accompanied by solo violin (concertmistress Deborah Wong), and later in the same movement solo soprano Felicia Moore was also accompanied by solo violin. Then, in the Crucifixus section of the Credo the tutti forces were once again employed, but were then followed by a section employing a string quartet accompanying the voices. As we approached the end of the movement tutti forces were once again used for the fugal “Et vitam venturi seculi” and the movement then ended with a magnificent Amen – magnificently written and magnificently performed.
It was at the end of this Credo movement, however, that I started to realize what a major work the Smyth Mass is; for not only is it an outstanding piece of music, but at approximately 16 minutes in length, the Credo movement alone is as long (or longer) than some of the complete Mozart Missa Breve.
Another imaginative and highly effective movement was the Benedictus, with its muted strings accompanying the women’s voices of the chorus and solo soprano Felicia Moore.
The Benedictus was followed by an Agnus Dei set in minor. One was first struck by the pathos which Smyth evoked with her move to minor, but as the movement progressed the music became increasingly dramatic. Indeed, Eric Barry’s soaring tenor voice was gripping in its intensity of expression as he gave an inspired evocation of the pathos and drama of this movement.
As befits the Anglican liturgy, the final movement of this Mass is a Gloria—and what a glorious Gloria it is. This multi-section movement is also approximately 16 minutes in length, with its various sections contrasting in tempi, orchestration, meter and employment of vocal forces. Smyth herself said that the movement proceeds through “splendid outbursts.” One of those “splendid outbursts” undoubtedly has to be the “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” which I noted during the performance with a simple “FABULOUS”—fabulously written and executed by the performers.
And as befits an outstanding setting of a Mass, this work closes with a grand Amen that was given a superb performance.
In closing, BRAVO! to conductor Mark Shapiro and the Cecilia Chorus for programming Smyth’s Mass, and all the work so many people must have done to assure that it was given a New York premiere worthy of its outstanding merits. Shapiro is also to be lauded for the excellent preparation of the choral forces and the inspired performance he gave of this work—a work he obviously believes in very deeply. He and the performers with whom he worked certainly convinced me of its great merits.
An internationally lauded conductor, Laurine Celeste Fox is Music Director/Conductor of Philharmonia New York and also is widely known for her musical scholarship, which has resulted in the discovery of a number of forgotten works that she and her ensembles have premiered.