JOHN KOZA’S CAMERATA SINGERS seized the opportunity to qualify for the Monterey County Gives! program by uniquely producing Henry Mollicone’s Beatitude Mass. That program—a partnership between Monterey County Weekly, Community Foundation for Monterey County and the Monterey Peninsula Foundation—enhances contributions to non-profits through adviser accounts domiciled with the foundations. But for the benefiting non-profits, there’s a catch. To quality a non-profit has to submit a specific project proposal. Mollicone’s Beatitude Mass, a work composed specifically to support programs that benefit the homeless is, as the composer intended, supposed to be offered free of change, with only contributions asked at the door. (Designated beneficiaries of proceeds from the concerts are Dorothy’s Place’s Women Alive, in Salinas, and Gathering Place for Women, in Monterey.)
And so it was Thursday evening at St. Paul’s Church in Salinas when John Koza conducted his chorus, soloists Leberta Lorál (pictured) and Bob Bogardus and an orchestra of eight in the 38-minute mass. In this case, the orchestra consisted of pianist Pauline Troia, flutist Monica Mendoza, oboist Peter Lemberg (who played mostly on cor anglais), hornist Beth Zare, cellist Linda Mehrabian, bassist Plamen Velikov and percussionists Stuart Langsam and Gregory Messa. (This was the first of three performances, culminating Sunday afternoon in Monterey at which the 71-year-old composer was expected to attend.)
The program opened with eight short like-spirited pieces, from Amazing Grace to Lord, make me an instrument, The water is wide and Khumbaya. These were all done in tasty arrangements that ranged in style from protestant hymnody to gospel and used the instruments in discretely effective ways. For Khumbaya, Judi Moncrief played the djembe, a West Africa ‘goblet’ drum. Singers from the chorus were singled out for solos. The set concluded with Mollicone’s gospel-flavored Hear me, Redeemer, that introduced Lorál as soloist before the chorus.
Mollicone, a prolific composer of operas—Coyote Tales, Hotel Eden, Gabriel’s Daughter, Emperor Norton and The Face on the Barroom Floor among others—and concert works, creates music that adroitly works through infectious melodies, modal harmonies and complex rhythms. The consistent result is music with immediate and memorable impact on audiences and steep challenges for performers. (Koza told me Beatitude is one of the hardest pieces he has ever conducted.)
Beatitude uses the Roman Catholic liturgical texts and poems and narratives written by homeless people in desperate circumstances. Those juxtapositions give it the feel of the great passion oratorios of Bach, an impression enhanced by giving the personal homeless texts to the two soloists, now personified as Adam and Eve. Indeed, Adam’s Song even carries devices used by Bach. The 10-movement work opens and closes with the beatitude “Blessed are the poor,” and contains a Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. An instrumental interlude, Meditation, precedes the Benedictus. The Finale celebrates and honors Mary, mother of mercy, pity, hope, grace and holy joy.
If the piece is as challenging to perform—as I heard afterward from choristers and instrumentalists as well—it disclosed scant evidence in its execution. In fact, Mollicone’s dramatic instincts are but another ‘instrument’ in his toolbox. He doesn’t dawdle, but gets on with it even in the slow passages. The performance seemed to fly by.
Soprano Lorál, who grew up on the Monterey Peninsula and has spent many years in Los Angeles—a longtime member of the LA Opera Chorus with a solo career as well—was a joy to hear in her first collaboration with Koza and his chorus. This is an artist we need to hear a lot more of. Bogardus, also a local talent, has a long history of concert and stage appearances in Monterey County. He last sang with Camerata in 2011.
I hope this production raised a lot of money for the designated charities. It certainly raised a great deal of spirit for those of us who attended it.