Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) presented its first subscription concert for its 38th season in San Francisco. The full title of the ensemble was appropriate for the occasion, since the program consisted entirely of sacred music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan conducted; and the Philharmonia Chorale was prepared by its Director, Bruce Lamott, who also gave the pre-concert talk. Vocal solos were provided by soprano Camille Ortiz, mezzo Meg Bragle, tenor James Reese, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton.
Johann M. Greiter’s c. 1780 portrait of Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
The program was framed by two of the settings of sacred texts that Mozart wrote for Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo in Salzburg. The earlier of these, the K. 195 setting of the Loretan Litanies composed in 1774, opened the program; and the K. 317 Mass setting, the last of the fifteen such settings Mozart composed in Salzburg and first performed in 1779, filled the entire second half. The intermission was preceded by the K. 165 motet “Exsultate, jubilate,” which was written for performance in Milan in 1773.
Composed in the “sunny” key of C major, K. 317 is known as the “Coronation” Mass; but that name was not given by Mozart. Most likely the name was assigned after it was performed for the 1791 coronation of Emperor Leopold II in Prague, where it was conducted by Antonio Salieri. The 1779 performance, on the other hand, took place on Easter Sunday; and joyous spectacle was the order of the day. The setting of the text was straightforward, avoiding the abundant repetitions of words and phrases encountered in earlier styles. Instrumental resources were grand with pairs of oboes, horns, trumpets, and timpani, along with three trombones to double the alto, tenor, and bass parts of the chorus.
The high spirits would have been appropriate for the occasion. Easter celebrates the joy of the Resurrection following the darkness of the Crucifixion on Good Friday. McGegan has a delightful reputation for raising such high spirits to even further heights, and last night’s performance of K. 317 could not have provided a better launch for a new season. The brisk alternations of choral and solo passages were given a deft account, and all four of the soloists had no trouble relaying McGegan’s high spirits through their respective passages.
Ortiz had the jump on the rest of them, however, since she had already delivered a thoroughly sparkling account of “Exsultate, jubilate.” As Lamott observed in his program notes, the vocal spectacle of K. 165 would probably have driven Colloredo up the wall; but it seems to have been a great hit with Mozart’s Milanese listeners. Presumably K. 195 was more to Colloredo’s liking.
By definition, litanies are prayers of supplication. As they are celebrated, however, supplication tends to be a matter of almost obsessive repetition, almost as if intended to free the mind of everything but the act of supplication. (There is even a litany in the Jewish Sabbath service, although it is not identified specifically as such.) Needless to say, “obsessive repetition” never entered Mozart’s mind when he set the text of the Loretan Litanies. Indeed, this is one of those pieces in which the listener is better off avoiding the text sheet, thus holding the temptation to count all the verbal repetitions at bay. Instead, Mozart’s music has its own logic in laying out a journey from beginning to end for each of the five prayers in the collection.
For the most part last night’s performance came out decidedly in favor of Mozart over the words he was setting. The vocal soloists seemed to have problems with balance, but this may just have been a matter of adjusting to the Herbst space. (The entire ensemble had flown in from Orange County, having performed the same program last night at the much larger Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.) For practical purposes K. 195 may have been a “warm-up” for them. However, Ortiz was clearly in top form for her K. 165 solo work; and all four soloists were decidedly on the ball for the entire K. 317 Mass setting.