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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Concert Review: The Heavy Weight of Faith

Sacred Music in a Sacred Space presents Bach's Mass in B minor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
K. Scott Warren leads the Choir of St. Ignatius.
Photo by Joshua South Photograpy © 2015 Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.
Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor was the composer's final great choral work, an enormous setting of the Catholic liturgy that was never performed complete in his lifetime. (In fact Europe waited until 1859 for the first performance under the leadership of Carl Friedrich Zelter, a key figure in the Bach revival of the 19th century.) Although its history is complex, its power in performance cannot be denied.

That at least was the theory behind the Orchestra and Chorus of St. Ignatius' concert performance of the Mass, under the baton of music director K. Scott Warren. In the ornate and hallowed Church of St. Ignatius, surrounded by the wrought and ornate iconography of the Catholic Church, the final concert of this year's Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series seemed to grow in power, portent and meaning. Maybe it was the choice of holy ground for the performance. Or maybe because the audience sat quietly for two and a half hours on old-fashioned wooden pews.

The Mass in B Minor had a long genesis, with parts drawn from 35 years of Bach's career. Initially, the work was planned only as a Kyrie and Gloria, a pair of musical calling cards for the composer with the local ruler--the Dresden-based Elector of Saxony. Bach eventually chose to expand the work to include every section of the Catholic liturgy, writing the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in the last years of his life.

Mr. Warren made careful and intelligent decisions in his arrangement, choosing pared-down resources (one bass fiddle, two cellos, double winds) to give this score an intimate feel. The Orchestra was blessed with full strings, clean and clear tone from the principal flute, and finest of all, the oboe d'amore, a favorite instrument of Bach's. (Oddly, the winds were seated behind and to the left of the first violins.) He also had a well-prepared chorus, although the church acoustic and placement of the singers before the altar tended to blur the sound in key passages when Bach's interpretation of the text should (ideally) be crisp and lucid.

The conductor chose a very slow, old-fashioned tempo for the opening Kyrie, one that recalled the mid-20th century performance practice of Munich Bach conductor Karl Richter. This heavyweight approach lent maximum gravity and power to the pleas for divine mercy. As the polyphonic lines increased in complexity and power, the music rose to a slow, majestic climax. And all this to express just two words of text: Kyrie eleison. This was followed by the first appearance of soloists Elisa Singer and Kate Maroney, singing Christe eleison. The section ended with an even more elaborate polyphonic fugue, music that showed Bach's genius and his piety of message.

Bach incorporated a number of musical settings into the Mass, writing arias and duets for all six major types of singing voices. The first solo in this work is the Laudamus te, sung by Kate Maroney. Her clear, bright instrument sailed over the spare orchestration. Joined for the Domine Deus by tenor John Tiranno, the two voices wove their lines over a figured bass as the music climaxed. Also impressive was bass Enrico Lagasca, whose deep, dark instrument carried the weight of Quonuiam tu solas Sanctus.

It is in the Credo that Bach used his earliest source music, a dark, hollow passage chronicling the Crucifixion of Jesus. This was also taken slowly, with a heavy tread in the bass and organ capturing the awesome solemnity of the events described. The tone changed as the chorus chronicled the Resurrection, rising up with flourishes from trumpets and horns and a jubilant and affirmative aria from solo baritone Timothy Krol.

The last sections of the Mass come in quick succession. The Sanctus contains the most complicated part-writing in the choir, with six different polyphonic lines intertwining against a dense orchestral fabric. The chorus brought power and energy to the Osanna, with its rising, celebratory music infused with fervor and joy. This was a sharp contrast to the weighty final solo, the profound Agnus Dei sung by contralto Heather Petrie. This might have been the finest sung moment of the performance, setting up one last affirmation in the final words: Dona nobis pacem.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.