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Beethoven's Masterpiece

By Susan Dumais
November 24, 2010

Beethoven portrITDuring the last years of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven composed a mass he considered the greatest of his works: “Missa Solemnis.” Yet it is a work seldom performed, in part because of its technical difficulty. On the one hand, it requires a bevy of capable performers: full chorus, orchestra, and both virtuoso instrumentalists and soloists. On the other hand, throughout its five movements, it traverses a tremendously varied landscape of moods, tempos, and characters. A workout for the director and performers, “Missa Solemnis” is a treat for the audience. Many believe it to be a culminating masterpiece of extreme beauty.

A full performance of “Missa Solemnis” is the next event in the yearlong Arts for Life celebration of fine and performing arts at UNH. It takes place on Sunday, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m. in the Johnson Theatre. The work is directed by Professor William Kempster and features the UNH Concert Choir with alumni, the UNH Symphony Orchestra (prepared by symphony director David Upham), and four alumni soloists: Tricia Suriani, soprano; Rebecca Claborn, mezzo-soprano; Christopher Sand, tenor; and Nicholas Laroche, baritone.

“One of the aims of Arts for Life was to reach out to our alumni,” says Kempster. “This seemed a good opportunity to bring back the soloists we would need to perform this piece.” The difficulty of the work necessitated that the soloists be of the highest caliber, and Kempster is thrilled that the outstanding alums he had in mind all agreed to participate. At least fifty other alumni vocalists and string players will join the choir and orchestra to create an ensemble of well over two hundred people.

“Missa Solemnis” has caused its share of debate over the years: is the piece a criticism of religious dogma, or does it, instead, affirm Beethoven’s faith in a higher power? There are, indeed, elements unusual for a mass. In the final movement, for example, the chorus repeatedly prays for peace while the drums of war rise beneath, transforming the mass into “a powerful antiwar statement,” according to Kempster. In fact, such elements make the piece relevant to audiences today, “much to Beethoven’s dismay, I would imagine,” Kempster adds. Beautiful, complex, thought-provoking, “Missa Solemnis” is a journey for both the mind and soul.

This event is free and open to the public.

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