SAN FRANCISCO -- Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" is a statement of faith, a statement of beauty. It's vast. It's varied. It's unified. It makes you grateful to be human.
It could also bring you to your knees -- and if the seats at Davies Symphony Hall weren't as tightly packed as those on a Jet Blue red-eye, it might have done that Friday as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in an inspired performance of this staggering work.
Amazing, amazing. Pacem, pacem.
The performance, the first of two, placed a crown on the orchestra's two-week "Beethoven Project" festival, which closes Sunday with a program of Beethoven string quartets played by members of the orchestra.
This "Missa" impressed in just about every way, including visually.
The 120-member chorus -- directed by Ragnar Bohlin and singing like a ball of fire, with stamina and finesse, and with lots of high B-flats -- was arranged in ranks above and behind the orchestra. At stage-right, seated at his flight-control keyboard, was organist Jonathan Dimmock. Flanking Tilson Thomas were four soloists, all excellent -- though a special "hosanna" must go out to mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, whose singing of "miserere nobis" ("have mercy upon us") in the "Agnus Dei" was like an expanding column of pure concentrated sound. It was soulfully unnerving, shaking your inners, bringing to mind the likes of Callas and Coltrane.
Beethoven composed his Mass between 1819 and 1823, ostensibly to mark the installation as archbishop, in Moravia, of his patron the Archduke Rudolph. He missed his deadline by 40 months, all the while preparing and purifying his Mass, studying the old church modes, bringing history to bear on his work of futurism. Throughout the "Missa solemnis," Beethoven's camera pans in and out, and his effects are always driven by the text. His variety of word-painting is a constant surprise as the piece transforms and grows, bursting with vitality, a living thing.
There were some bumps in the nearly 80-minute performance, including a fugue or two that wobbled while getting off the ground. But mostly it was a succession of "wow" moments, beginning with the "Kyrie eleison" and its slow-motion radiance. Beethoven marks the score "Mit Andacht" ("with devotion"), and that's how this introductory movement felt, as led by Tilson Thomas, whose tempos struck gold all evening. This one was spacious and comfortable; the orchestra played like a dream. And from this beginning, very naturally, there emerged a sense of awe.
The "Gloria" was something very different: cosmic wheels exploding into interlocking motion -- and then subsiding. The "Qui tollis" was all exquisiteness, weaving the voices of Cooke, poignant soprano Laura Claycomb, burnished bass-baritone Shenyang and tenor Michael Fabiano, whose voice was as soothing and lyric as it was fortifying.
In this Mass, words become ecstatic murmurs, which melt into orchestral colors, which pinwheel into new beginnings. The four-note melody of "credo, credo" is almost a singsong, so simple in isolation. But it soon sits inside a whirlwind of orchestra and chorus. Friday, the closing fugue of the "Credo" was oceanic -- a big, beautiful tumult, heaving with crosscurrents.
A few moments later, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik stood for his test: the "Benedictus." He looked as serious as a schoolboy called to the front of the class, and then began to play his violin: that famous stepwise descent, at first with a pair of accompanying flutes, and then alone. Barantschik made this heavenly aria seem easy; he was all heart. Seated next to him, Claycomb looked to be on the verge of tears.
Two hours earlier, the program began with portions of a Mass by Palestrina, a composer admired and studied by Beethoven. Performed by the chorus and conducted by Bohlin, the "Missa Papae Marcelli" (its "Kyrie," "Gloria" and "Agnus Dei") was sweetly and touchingly delivered -- and swiftly superseded by Beethoven.
the Beethoven project
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Remaining tickets: 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Members of the orchestra perform string quartets by Beethoven; remaining tickets $36.