BSO captures Beethoven’s trailblazing symphony

ORONO — The word masterwork is defined as “a great work of art; an outstanding and ingenious work; a gem; a tour de force.”

The two masterworks performed by the Bangor Symphony Orchestra Sunday were important works by true masters of Western classical music: Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The concert at the Collins Center for the Arts was the fifth in the orchestra’s 2017-2018 Masterworks program.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major was written when the composer was, at age 30, still developing his distinctive style. Premiered in 1800, Beethoven’s first symphony honors the 18th century symphonic genius of Haydn and Mozart.

From the work’s first measures, though, it is clear that a new century has dawned. For the entire 12-bar introduction, Beethoven avoids the “home” key of C major, and Maestro Lucas Richman created an air of suspense before leading the orchestra into a rather gentle Allegro con brio for the remainder of the movement.

Beethoven made liberal use of the woodwinds, which on Sunday were seated in a distinct block above the string sections. The balance and interplay between the two groups of instruments was consistently even and nicely shaped.

The second violins opened the second movement, with the repeated rising gesture taking on a sort of graceful swagger. The contrasting third movement was a highly energetic scherzo (literally, “joke”) that was quintessentially heroic Beethoven. The teasing quality continued in the opening of the final movement, which could easily be mistaken for Haydn (who had been Beethoven’s teacher). Maestro Richman remarked during the pre-concert lecture that in this symphony Beethoven was “breaking the rules.” Through his mastery of the form, the composer showed that he knew the rules he was breaking.

When Mozart wrote his Great Mass in C Minor at age 27, he was already a master, and breaking rules seems to have been almost a compulsion. This was demonstrated in his choice of a bride, of whom his father did not approve, and in the composition of this mass, which defied the period’s requirements for straightforward, unadorned mass settings.

The C minor mass, which was never finished (or was perhaps in part lost), is a pastiche of styles: large-scale choral movements, operatic arias and ensembles, fugues, ornate instrumental solos, and exuberant writing for the orchestra.

Sunday’s performance was the annual collaboration between the BSO and the University of Maine’s Oratorio Society and UMaine Singers, with a combined chorus numbering more than 100. The choristers sang as if their lives depended on it, and in fact oversang much of the time, rendering the text largely unintelligible.

To be fair, the sound was glorious in soft passages. The soloists, all Maine residents, were sopranos Katelyn Parker Bray and Jennifer Bates, tenor Joseph Cough, and bass-baritone John David Adams. Bray’s light soprano was lovely in the aria, “Et incarnatus,” which Mozart wrote for his wife.

Bates showed impressive agility in her beautiful rendition of the “Laudamus te.” The two traded notes at the extremes of their ranges in the duet “Domine Deus.” It’s a shame that the tenor and bass have so little to do in the mass. Cough’s spinto tenor cut through the dense texture, and Adams was appropriately stentorian in his incipit passages.

The audience, which packed the Collins Center, rewarded the performers with an especially robust response for Fran Vogt, UMaine’s director of choral activities.

Marcia Gronewold Sly

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