Music that serves the Lord with fear and rejoices with trembling

My cousin invited me to downtown Los Angeles on a Friday evening (April 1, no less) to witness a performance of Mozart's great “Mass in C minor” with the LA Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale led by their Conductor Emeritus, Zubin Mehta.

In the 1980s, Maestro Mehta used to come back from his new gig in New York to work the orchestra for its summer Hollywood Bowl concerts, and I was a frequent observer of his rehearsals. (The Philharmonic's music director at the time, Carlo Maria Giulini, was not a fan of the more informal outdoor setting. For him, a concert performance was a sacred offering in itself.) I got to witness the maestro at the energetic and dashing peak of his career from not more than 10 yards away as he led his beloved ensemble through the repertoire. The bond between him and the musicians was obvious.

The Zubin Mehta of 40 years later is frail. He carefully watches his feet as he steps on and off the podium, and he sits while leading the orchestra. He no longer seems to care about being the one in charge; his concertmaster and principals carry the load of keeping the orchestra together. Yet, his presence seems almost greater in its frailty. LA still loves its Maestro Emeritus, and he clearly reciprocates that adoration. On this night it is more than enough.

Mozart's Great Mass is not, in my opinion, the greatest Mass setting ever composed — that honor goes to Johann Sebastian Bach and his “Mass in B minor.” However, it is my personal favorite. It carries Mozart's typical charm and innocence but is also endowed with power that reveals a composer who, despite his frequent characterization as shallow and immature, must have experienced the spiritual abyss, with its terrifying joy. This is music that serves the Lord with fear and rejoices with trembling.

This Mass is not a complete setting; the “Agnus Dei” is omitted, and the “Credo” truncates just before “Crucifixus,” ending with a sublime musical depiction of the One who is Light from Light, and True God of True God, coming down from heaven to become man in the womb of the Virgin Mary. From there one is led directly to the “Sanctus” which culminates in what I think is the most joyous “Hosanna” ever composed.

Nobody knows why Mozart did not complete this Mass, but I hesitate to call the work unfinished; for me, it is perfectly satisfying just as it is. The listener needs simply to love it and to accept the gift of its beauty. Maestro Mehta and his musicians provided everything needful on this night; his own weakness allowed the music to speak for itself — and when Mozart is allowed to speak freely, it is always more than enough.

Mike Malouf

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