AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As a music student and a choral director, Nathaniel Fryml always saw Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” as the peak of classical music, rarely done by ensembles because of its notorious difficulty.
“To me, it’s always been sort of held up to me as a music student as kind of the big kahuna, you know, the Mount Everest of… Western music literature,” he said. “But I don’t think you really get a sense of that until you’ve wrestled with the beast.”
More than 170 musicians from multiple Amarillo musical entities, including the Amarillo Symphony, Chamber Music Amarillo, the Amarillo Master Chorale, First Baptist Church as well as various higher education institutions like Amarillo College, Wayland Baptist University and West Texas A&M University, have come together to tackle this musical beast. Their one-night-only performance of the “Missa Solemnis” will occur at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts.
The work, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1819 and 1823, is an 81-minute, five-movement mass that the composer considered his greatest work, according to the Amarillo Symphony’s website. The 173 musicians participating in Saturday’s performance will be the most ever musicians on the Globe-News Center’s stage at once.
How did this process begin and why was it delayed?
Initially scheduled to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th Birthday in 2020, David Palmer, the artistic director for Chamber Music Amarillo, first got the idea for a performance of the “Missa Solemnis” in 2018.
“I thought of this idea in the middle of the night and thought ‘this is a ridiculous idea, you know, go to sleep,’” Palmer said. “But the next morning, I called my father, who’s a fine conductor… and pitched the idea to him, and there was this profound silence on the phone. And he said, ‘Do you have any idea what you’re asking of your community?’ But, we found out, let’s put it that way.”
Members of the community first came together to start rehearsing the mass in 2018, with the initial intent of a performance occurring in May 2020, Palmer said. However, COVID-19 pushed back the performance to 2021, and eventually into 2022.
But, participants, along with the organizers were set on bringing this performance to the Texas Panhandle, two years after Beethoven’s 250th birthday.
“It was just a very exciting idea to think about the fact that time and time again, in this (region), people have decided that this can happen and they have made whatever effort was necessary to make that happen,” Palmer said. “I’m just so thrilled that we can culminate in this real celebration if you will. So many people have invested so much time, so many people have given so much money… To be able to honor them, you know, with this performance and have them participate in it and share (this piece of music) with the community… is very exciting. It’s just a wonderful thing for it to actually happen and I’m enormously grateful to everybody for staying the course with us as we see this to a conclusion.”
How difficult is the piece?
According to the symphony’s website, the work’s “virtuosity,” with the challenging requirements for choir members, soloists as well as a full orchestra, “means that it is usually only performed in large metroplexes.”
Fryml, the artistic director for the Amarillo Master Chorale, said a number of factors go into the difficulty of the overall work, including how much singing the chorus does throughout the 81-minute piece.
“So that’s one thing, just building stamina, but we’re also dealing with extremes of vocal range that are demanded,” he said. “…Everybody loves to sing high notes, but the Sopranos and Tenors are having to sing extremely high notes for extremely long periods of time. And then the Altos in the Basses, likewise, are asked to do things that are not typically in their wheelhouse. So, our members are actually having to build these skills as we go.”
Fryml also cited the sudden changes in volume Beethoven called for through the use of dynamics, along with the emphasis on articulation “just peppered throughout the piece.”
Through this difficulty, Palmer said he believes Beethoven was expressing the connection between God, the musicians and the audience, through the performance of the piece.
“He wanted to present that in such a way that it was overwhelming, if you will, in terms of what he felt his faith was, with God and with religion,” he said. “The way he wrote the music, in many respects, is almost virtually impossible to sing. So, you know, you may have a low note followed by an extremely high note and you may have incredibly loud notes that are very high. All of this is incredibly stressful in the voice. It takes some real careful, precise training and practice that needs to be done consistently.”
How did performers prepare for the performance?
Prior to this performance being put together, Fryml said he would not have thought it would be possible to perform the “Missa Solemnis” with a high percentage of participants from the community. However, that fact is what Fryml stresses is what has become so valuable from this project.
“There are far more non-professionals, you know, amateur musicians, than we have actual professional musicians,” Fryml said, “and they are the bread and butter of the project. They are the heart of the project. And in some ways, they are the ones who actually get it more than those of us who have our heads up in the clouds sometimes with the analytics.”
Kathy Kendall-Tackett, a member of the ensemble, said she thought this “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to sing the “Missa Solemnis” was dead during the pandemic. But now that it is happening, she said she is still in disbelief that she’s a part of it.
“It’s amazing when you have a chance to sing music that is this amazing,” she said. “There’s something really spiritual about coming together with a whole group of other people around this beautiful music, and just feeling like you’re just lifting one voice in this way… I actually can’t believe I actually get to do this… I’m in a different field. I’m not a professional musician, but having a chance to do this with this group has really been inspiring.”
Parker Bowen, a member of the ensemble, also said he is inspired by singing as part of the ensemble.
“It’s such a rare opportunity to perform a piece of this magnitude. It’s not something that comes up even in many people’s lifetimes. To get to join together from across the community to perform such great music is fun but so fulfilling,” Bowen said. “I’ve been so impressed with how quickly people have risen to the task.”
Through the rehearsals of the piece, Fryml said he has seen community building at work within the ensemble, with people in various circles coming together to pursue one common goal. Through the more than four years of rehearsal, Fryml said he has seen a lot of growth.
“This piece, I think, really is unique in the sense that it requires so much focus and effort, even from the musicians with the highest training. But then when you extend that to everyone with their various backgrounds, and how it requires us to lean on each other and to provide for each other what is lacking in a variety of areas,” Fryml said. “You can’t help but grow through something like this. Part of the experience is somehow finding in yourself, or in your community, the endurance, the stamina, to make it through to the finish line and I think it’s in that process that a lot of the growth happens.”
Jeff Brain, a member of the ensemble, said this could not have been done without the involvement of the whole community.
“That’s one of the great things about this project is how many different aspects of the community have come together to see this take place,” he said. “You know, we’ve got people from various churches singing with this. People, people from Wayland Baptist University. We’ve just got a great number of people that are collaborating on this project. And, and the community is behind it… It’s probably one of the most unifying things I’ve seen in this community in a long time.”
Why should people be exposed to this work?
Michael Palmer, the conductor of the performance and David Palmer’s father, has conducted the “Missa Solemnis” multiple times, stressing that this experience in Amarillo validates the experiences he has had before with the piece. He stressed that the concert will be “a testament to the fortitude and persistence of the people here in Amarillo who have been supporting (the project) all along.”
Fryml sees this piece as a mechanism through which Beethoven is speaking to the audience, even more than a century after it was initially written. He said that the audience will experience something “simply by being present in the room.”
“(The ‘Missa Solemnis’ is) something that has been kind of brought down… where you don’t have to have an understanding of the mechanics of music in order to understand the gesture, the passion, the love,” Fryml said. “I don’t think you’ll actually find a better piece than this, to experience that in real terms… You have to be ready for intensity. You have to be ready to listen with open ears and sit for a relatively long period of time absorbing this information, both visual and aural. But I don’t think there’s anything that really matters that isn’t going to be understood by every single member of that audience.”
There is something for everybody in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” a work that Michael Palmer calls a “masterpiece” surrounding the human condition. No matter if someone is well-versed in classical music or a novice to the genre, he said it will be applicable to everyone sitting in the Globe-News Center Saturday evening.
“Well, if they are capable of opening themselves to it, they will be richly rewarded with a tremendous amount of fulfillment,” Michael Palmer said. “It’s because it’s about them. It’s about each of us. The piece is the mass text, which a lot of people are familiar with from church. But Beethoven did a special deep dive into the text in terms of what it really means to us as human beings and that’s what inspired this work. So that’s what’s in store for the audience who’s there… It is for everybody. Just as is all classical music, really. It’s like anything else. All you have to do is give it some time and pay attention to it, and mainly you have to listen.”
While Saturday’s performance is sold out, Panhandle PBS is expected to show the performance in its entirety, along with a documentary surrounding the journey of the performance, on Thanksgiving weekend.
Update (10:50 a.m. Nov. 23)
Officials with Panhandle PBS released information regarding the documentary surrounding August’s historic performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.”
According to officials with Panhandle PBS, the premiere of “From the Heart: The Making of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the Texas Panhandle” will be at 8 p.m. Friday on Panhandle PBS. The full performance of the work will follow the documentary.
“This documentary will give further insight into this major project we accomplished just a few months ago,” a post on Panhandle PBS’s social media read.