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Divine in the small moments

March 30, 2004|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

In his "Missa Solemnis," Beethoven is exuberant when portraying a universe rejoicing in heavenly glory. He is intimate when painting an Incarnation of stained-glass colors and delicacy. But he is his most personal -- and most present to us -- when invoking a prayer for peace in a landscape of desolation and fear.

It was in the smaller rather than the grandiose moments of this great Mass that conductor Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale made the most impact Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

At such times, the meaning of the texts, the focused clarity of the singing and the relationship between voices and orchestra converged ideally. Similar moments included the comforting lower strings at the opening of the Sanctus and the ardent solo by concertmaster Barry Socher that threaded through the lovely Benedictus.

Most unforgettable was the sense of an abyss virtually without hope that opened the Agnus Dei. If Gershon then swung too easily, with too much confidence, into the ensuing Dona Nobis Pacem, Beethoven dispelled that certainty soon enough by loosening the drums and trumpets of war.

The Master Chorale, at about 110 voices, was capable of making a mighty sound. Perhaps it was too mighty, too often. In the colossal moments, which seemed to come one after another, it easily overwhelmed the orchestra of less than half its size. The best balance came in the floods of "Credos" that Beethoven used to bury lines of doctrine and the two sharp "Amens" that close the Credo, and in the mighty triple fortissimo "Deus Pater omnipotens" in the Gloria.

Of the soloists Sunday, soprano Elissa Johnston was the most engaged in expressing the meaning of the texts. Mezzo-soprano Paula Rasmussen was a luminous presence, but her fast vibrato began to verge on unsteadiness. Tenor Stanford Olsen appeared to be husbanding his ample resources. He came most alive in the plea for mercy when the dogs of war were sounding. Bass Ron Li-Paz had strong low notes, but his voice often sounded more gray than black.

Gershon wisely cut any intermission so that Beethoven's towering work could make its powerful impact -- with its final hopeful but far from certain plea for peace -- without interruption.

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