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Tuesday, 21 May 2013 23:41

Concert review: Bruckner Mass in F Minor by the Archdiocesan Choir and Orchestra at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis Saturday, May 18

Concert review: Bruckner Mass in F Minor by the Archdiocesan Choir and Orchestra at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis Saturday, May 18
Written by Gary Liam Scott
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Throughout its history, the Catholic Mass has inspired composers from every conceivable background, Catholic or not, including Johann Sebastian Bach, who was Lutheran, Leonard Bernstein, a Jew, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber.  On May 18, the Cathedral Concerts series capped its 2012-2013 season with a rousing performance of Anton Bruckner’s monumental "Mass in F Minor" at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Given its liturgical and textual confines, one would expect the Mass to be a limiting force in music.  However, just the opposite is true.  Like the sonnet in poetry, a composer is free to express his or her greatest creativity in the musical crafting of the Mass, provided the basic formulation of the liturgy is kept.  And given the fact that music is abstract in its very nature, a musical setting invites reflection and meditation on the part of the listener, granting new insight into the meaning and significance of the text.

For these reasons, the performance of a masterpiece such as the "Mass in F Minor" is a gift not just to the Roman Catholic community of St. Louis, but to the community at large, and reinforces the position of the Cathedral Basilica and Music Director Horst Buchholz as leaders on the broader stage of the entire St. Louis community.

Although Bruckner (1824-1896) composed music of immense grandeur, ironically he was a man of complete simplicity and humility.  The son of a schoolmaster and organist in a village church, he dressed in modest clothing his entire life and was slow to accept a teaching position in music theory at the Vienna Conservatory.  His inward faith and artistic practices were inspired by his visions of heaven; his outward life was an expression of renunciation of earthly glories.  Yet he was a warm-blooded human being who loved life, enjoyed good beer and longed for the companionship of a devoted wife.  (Even though he never married, he continued his search throughout his life.)

Those who only experience the Mass as occasional visitors to Catholic churches, or who may have been raised in the folk guitar tradition popularized in the Vatican II era, will experience a new level of spirituality expressed through music in a work such as this.  Bruckner painted the Mass as a broad landscape with deep colors.  The listener is wrapped in an immense cocoon of resounding majesty that peals like a chorus of bells.  Far from being sterile and austere, Bruckner’s music is a celebration of musical sensuality; melodies and harmonies intertwine, as do chorus, soloists and orchestra.

Although the cavernous acoustics of the Cathedral Basilica are not always praised, for this particular work they almost seemed ideal.  The Archdiocesan Choir and Orchestra, along with soloists Gina Galati, soprano, Nora Teipen, alto, Kevin Hanrahan, tenor, and Robert Avrett, bass, conducted by Horst Buchholz, boomed and soared across the sanctuary.  In this work, soloists generally do not have extended solos (with a few exceptions), but rather are interwoven with the broader musical lines, somewhat as adornment and punctuation to the text and musical thought.  Balance was generally excellent throughout the evening. 

The orchestra, although devoid of words, plays an integral role in the production of this work, providing the lifeblood of the work as an organic whole.  One member of the chorus remarked that she gained her fullest appreciation of Bruckner’s ideas and vision after beginning rehearsals with the orchestra.  Without a competent orchestra, this work becomes lifeless.  Fortunately, the Archdiocesan Orchestra, whose ranks include several members of the St. Louis Symphony—was equal to the task.  Given the many hats Horst Buchholz must wear as Director of Sacred Music for the Cathedral Basilica and the Archdiocese—organist, choirmaster, composer, cantor and educator—he rendered yeoman service in managing the complex structure of Bruckner’s Mass.  Special thanks must also go to the vocal soloists, who performed with integrity and without personal ego, and to the Archdiocesan Choir, who give so freely of their time to help create a momentous performance that ennobles all of us.

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