Times Music Critic

Just a few days ago, Roger Wagner--choral conductor extraordinaire--was making noises like the feisty old walrus he is.

Loud noises. Acrimonious noises. Public noises.

No, the founder of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, now 72, really didn't want to relinquish his post as music director.

Retirement was being foisted upon him. His new title, music director laureate , was a sop if not an insult.

His board of directors had dealt him dirty. The Philharmonic management had plotted against him. The Music Center administration was falling apart.

It all sounded like doom, gloom and vinegar.

Saturday night, however, Wagner epitomized gracious bonhomie at his official valedictory. (Starting next season, he will be a guest, as it were, in his own house.) First he led his mighty chorus, a not-so-mighty orchestra and an uneven solo quartet through the lofty rigors and vigors of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

Then he basked in standing ovations from a Pavilion-full of admirers, not to mention speechy tributes from some of the very people about whom he had groused.

The chairman of his board gushed of "the end of an era of fabulous excellence." An executive of the Performing Arts Council helped unveil a commemorative portrait of the maestro, declaring: "We don't intend to let him go--ever, ever, ever."

Everyone's momentary hero beamed, indulged in a little Wagnerian horseplay and basked in hemidemisemi-funereal adulation.

A tiny child brought him flowers. Carmine Marinelli, the resident Toscanini of stage management and pasta, brought him champagne. The house crew unfurled a banner that proclaimed him: "World's Greatest." His vocal flock chanted a rousing "hip-hip-hooray."

When it came time for the inevitable acknowledgement, Wagner blew kisses, conveyed undying gratitude, underscored the timeliness of Beethoven's plea for peace, reminded the throng that he would "be around, like Nero," and, perhaps, bit his tongue.

It was a splendid performance.

That, alas, is more than one could say for the Missa Solemnis. The music making reflected an all-too familiar combination of virtues and vices.

The primary virtue: magnificent, rousing, flexible, wide-ranging, untiring, full-throated, resonant, passionate, ultraresponsive singing by the Master Chorale. Wagner always knew how to deal with voices.

The primary vice: generalized, loud, sometimes muddled, often unconducted playing by the Pacific Symphony of Orange County (which, for some reason, has masqueraded this season as the Sinfonia Orchestra). Wagner never knew how to deal with instruments.

Given a poetic chorus and a prosaic orchestra, Beethoven's complex and noble rhetoric had to be compromised from the start. Compounding the inequities, Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh (replacing a reportedly indisposed colleague) lacked the wonted force and freedom for the daunting soprano solos, and the sweet, tasteful lyric tenor of Jonathan Mack occasionally evaporated in the ensembles.

There was much to admire, on the other hand, in the virile basso of John Cheek and the sumptuous mezzo-soprano of Alice Baker, not to mention the elegant violin of Endre Granat in the Benedictus.,

This may not have been a great night for Beethoven, but it mattered little in context. It was a great night for socio-musico-political nostalgia.

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