Guest Maestro Gerard Schwarz will participate in next weekend’s Mozart and Tchaikovsky performances.
Guest Maestro Gerard Schwarz will participate in Mozart and Tchaikovsky performances with the San Antonio Symphony. Credit: Courtesy / Tobin Center for the Performing Arts

When 200 singers from three long-established institutions join forces to perform a venerated musical masterpiece, the result is nothing short of transformative.

The 2017 San Antonio Mozart Festival is well underway and the performance of Mozart’s largest choral work, the Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 22 will be an immediate highlight.

Even more ambitious than his Requiem, the Great Mass is essentially an opera, a towering double-choir work with eight simultaneous voice parts and a symphony rolled into one. Like the Requiem, the Mass too was unfinished at the time of the composer’s death in 1791. Legend has it that Mozart could not get himself to complete the work after the loss of his son, whose birth had purportedly inspired one of the movements. Whether or not this is true, its pomp and splendor is bold and rigorously dramatic.

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The ensembles performing this work include the San Antonio Choral Society, the Trinity University Chamber Singers, and the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Choir. They will be joined by members of the San Antonio Symphony and soloists Angela Malek, Jacquelyn Matava, Kirby Traylor, and Chia-Wei Lee.

Heather Yun, board president of and singer with the SA Choral Society, emphasized the singers’ diversity, but said they “share the common goal of creating music greater than could be achieved on [their] own.” Ironically, this momentous collaboration is the result of a passing chat between the three conductors of the respective ensembles – Jennifer Seighman, Gary Seighman, and Joseph Causby – and their desire to perform a work that is rarely done because of its many challenges and musical demands.

The fact that the work is unfinished poses perhaps the biggest challenge – Mozart only completed three sections of the traditional Catholic Mass (the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus movements). Large portions of the Credo are missing, as well as the entire Agnus Dei. Conductors face the task of choosing no fewer than eight versions which include several “completions” in which other composers have filled in the gaps by reworking sections Mozart completed or adapting melodies from his other works. This is much like how an archaeologist would reconstruct an ancient structure based on known practices. The version the ensemble will perform at this festival is the 2005 completion by Harvard musicologist Robert Levin, a most ambitious version that adds approximately 40% to the length of the work.

One of the concert’s most unique aspects is that all three conductors will be leading different movements of the work from the podium – a somewhat unorthodox deviation from the common practice of having a single conductor.

“Another twist to our performance, in which the work itself is already a product of fusing together different sources to make it ‘complete,’ will be for the audience to see and hear the subtle differences each of us brings out of the music,” Jennifer Seighman said.

Andrew Small, a first violinist with the San Antonio Symphony and managing director of the Monte Vista Strings and Jazz, is assembling the orchestra.

“I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm of all the participating musicians, many of them citing this as one of their favorite compositions,” Small said.

Jacquelyn Matava, soloist for the Mass in C Minor.
Jacquelyn Matava, soloist for the Mass in C Minor. Credit: Courtesy / Kimono Photography

The soloists also have a reason to be eager. With the same grandeur and flair as an 18th-century opera, the solos are virtuosic and demanding. Among these are several arias, a duet, a trio, and a quartet. However, the writing for the two soprano soloists is especially poignant. Mezzo-soprano Matava is no stranger to the work of a soloist, having previously performed the Mass at Indiana University four years ago. She notes that Mozart wrote one of the soprano solos for his wife, Constanze, and that the music frequently intertwines in dramatic fashion. Malek, a soprano, describes the Et Incarnatus Est aria as “reaching from the depths to the heights of the soprano range.” Even Pope Francis once commented that this well-known aria “is matchless; it lifts you to God.”

The concert is one night only on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tobin Center’s H-E-B Performance Hall. Tickets start at $19 and may be purchased through the Tobin’s website or by calling the box office at 210-223-8624.

Gary Seighman

Gary Seighman is director of Choral Activities and associate professor of Music at Trinity University.