Playing Ethel Smyth’s Mass

Yesterday (Sunday Nov 23), I played first horn in the orchestra for the New England premiere of Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D. It’s a mammoth work, filled with beautiful moments and unique textures. The Sounds of Stow Festival Chorus, conducted by Barbara Jones, programmed it for their Fall 2008 concert. Barbara isn’t shy about tackling big, but rarely heard works. Sounds of Stow has a recording on Albany Records from their 1994 performance of Amy Beach’s Grand Mass, which they repeated in 2004.

The beginning of the Kyrie is arresting. The men sing a sustained, quiet opening section solo, and the texture builds gradually, with tuba and bass trombone playing the theme in the bass before the trombones and horns come in full strength with the rest of the orchestra on the main theme. There are several occasions of wonderful soft brass writing, but the work isn’t notable for outstanding solo passages in the orchestra. Smyth’s focus is really on the voices. All the soloists had beautiful solos, but it was the quartet writing that really struck me. In the middle of the Credo (I think I’m remember the right movement; the parts are turned in), which is a brisk 3/4, everything stops for a magnificent quartet in which the soprano soars magnificently upward. It’s as if time stops for a transcendent moment of good will. Then, as the conductor told the tenors, time starts right up again. Any hesitation in the fast rhythmic entrances and it all falls apart.

The serene beauty of the Sanctus stands out for me. The alto solo is accompanied by horns and tuba, pianissimo. There must have been other instruments playing too, but I was pretty focused on playing softly enough to avoid covering the alto, which my part doubled. I don’t get a complete picture of the music when I’m playing, just general impressions, especially since we only had 2 full rehearsals.

I wasn’t that impressed with the piece at the first rehearsal. The texture seemed thick and homogeneous. And the manuscript parts were absolutely horrible to read. And a couple soloists were ill and couldn’t sing, or could only sing very softly. So it wasn’t until the second rehearsal that the orchestra found the musicality of the score. The chorus had already been working on it for a long time.It wasn’t until the concert that I really appreciated the sweeping scope of this very big work.

It’s an intense horn part. It’s practically non-stop playing in a very long piece, but the tessitura is comfortable. We had to play very softly most of the time (the chorus was not as big as the original performance with 1000 singers). Smyth was smart in giving high, large-ensemble passages to the 3rd horn. I was elated and exhausted when we finished. I’d made it to the end; mostly it had been musical; only a few missed notes or wrong transpositions. It required intense concentration, which I was able to do, partly because it was constant concentration; less opportunity to lapse. Even better was that everyone was concentrating together, intensely, and we brought this major piece into the light.

Also worth noting, Sounds of Stow co-founder Ernest Goldman soloed in another Mozart concerto (K.175 in D), as we also celebrated his 95th birthday.

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