Mostly Mozart Mass To Be Performed By Musicians At Dartmouth

May 8, 2014

Soon, over 100 singers at Dartmouth College will perform an ambitious work that Wolfgang Mozart never finished.

But of course the concert will not come to a skidding halt, because a Harvard pianist and composer named Robert Levin completed the soaring C Minor Mass.

The Handel Society of Dartmouth has been preparing it with gusto.

Each rehearsal starts with about a hundred singers — mostly amateur — warming up as their voice coach plays the piano. Erma Mellinger occasionally lifts one hand off the keyboard, as if to sculpt the rounded shape of the sound she wants the chorus to make. For her, the Mass in C Minor is a shimmering showcase for not just one composer, but two — Amadeus Mozart and Robert Levin.

“It is seamless, and I think all of  Mozart’s colors and facets and hues are represented and I don’t personally know. I don’t think of it in terms of, is this Levin or is this Mozart, I think of it more in terms of  how do we get through this vocal line in a beautiful manner, and serve the music?” Mellinger said.

But for at least one singer — Dan Meerson of Thetford, there are some perceptible differences between the 18th center composer and the 20th century reconstructor.

“The parts that he put together sometimes are clearly not Mozartian. That is to say, I’ve spent enough time on Mozart — I play the piano, I sing, I do other things, I kind of know what Mozart usually sounds like although he’s not predictable,” Meerson said.

Mozart was also a musical multi-tasker, but in this case, the task outlived him. In completing the Mass, Robert Levin faced daunting challenges. Some parts were written, but not scored for particular instruments or voices. One part, the Credo, is incomplete. The original scores of the Sanctus-Hosanna and the Benedictus are lost, and the Agnus Dei was never composed. So Levin had to fill in the missing pieces — it’s hard to say exactly how many — by consulting sketches Mozart left for this and other compositions.

“My efforts have been channeled towards making the break between the authentic parts of it and the speculative parts of it as narrow as possible so that a person who had never heard the piece before would be unlikely to guess that there was an issue of dual authorship at all,” Levin said.

But that dual authorship is exactly what makes this work so fascinating for Robert Duff, who will conduct a large orchestra, two choruses, and four soloists.  

Duff thinks Levin’s completion is more graceful than attempts by earlier finishers. He says you can hear Mozart’s homage to Bach, an earlier master.

“And so we end up having a real intense Mozart that’s grappling with Baroque counterpoint, which is very uncharacteristic of Mozart at the time,” Duff said.

And then he started leading the chorus in a rousing rendition of the Gloria.

“We call them the fiendish fugues,” alto Kathy Christie said during a break.

She actually loves those multi-layered fugues, with so many voices entering and exiting, because they put the middle voices — altos and tenors — on equal footing with the sopranos and basses.

“Sometimes Mozart gets to be a one-note guy — or the alto is filling in the chord, the G and the F, G, and F — when in doubt select one of those notes and you are probably right. But this isn’t that way at all,” Christie said.

No, it isn’t. It’s a rich tonal tapestry woven by two composers, spanning two centuries. 

The Handel Society of Dartmouth College will perform Mozart’s Mass in C Minor on Saturday May 17 and Sunday May 18 in Spaulding Auditorium.