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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Superconductor Interview: Thomas Crawford

The conductor of the American Classical Orchestra takes on Bach's Mass in B Minor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Left: conductor Thomas Crawford. Right: Johann Sebastian Bach.
The conductor performs Bach's Mass in B Minor on Nov. 15.
Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor is one of the great choral epics, a setting of the full Catholic mass by this Lutheran composer. It is also a textually troubled work, written over a long period of the composer's life and never performed by Bach himself. For Thomas Crawford, music director of the American Classical Orchestra, taking on Bach's monumental Mass is the achievement of a lifetime. Conductor and ensemble will perform the work on November 15 at Alice Tully Hall.

"There can never be a definitive edition of the Mass in B minor, because Bach never performed it himself," Mr. Crawford explains in a telephone interview one day before he and his orchestra are scheduled to start rehearsals. "There are all these textual issues associated with Bach's handwriting and presented a beautiful legible edition he presented the first half (Kyrie and Gloria) in Dresden. (This was in 1733--the rest of the Mass was finished in 1749, the year before Bach's death.)

Mr. Crawford has been preparing this work for twelve months, working on it every day. "I read nine books myself--and a piece like this has a lot of literature. I lined up the singers the choir and the soloists six months ago or so, and I started rehearsing with individual soloists a month ago--more than one does in the professional world. One thing that's unusual about us at ACO is I was a church musician and I have deep love and knowledge of church literature. I took a lot of lessons to be a choral conductor. I do all the choral prep and it saves a lot of time."

"The difference caused by period instruments is profound," the conductor explains. "Wood and metal flutes sound very different. Leather timpani heads and valveless horns give you a two-fold advantage, in the course of the B minor particularly. When you put  these instruments  with singers its completely magical. With voices, the textures of period instruments are naturally blended. The listener does not hear competition, and I do not have to worry as much about texture and balance problems."

"Bach was a collector. He wrote The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier This Mass is a collection of movements that span over thirty years. He didn't sit down and say: OK now I'm going to write a Mass."

"I've played few pieces that have as many textual decisions to make as this one," he says. "For example, in the famous duet Et in unum Dominum, Bach wrote the word "oboes." In this Mass, he switches back and forth between oboes and oboes d'amore and he wrote parts for both. But sometimes in his career he would just write 'oboes' and he meant 'oboes d'amore!' That's an obvious decision--had he made that 'error' or 'shortcut'--he's just using the word oboes."

"Bach scholars have argued that he did mean 'oboes' and I don't buy that argument. We have two of America's great oboists in this group, and they've played it both ways on both instruments. They've pressed me for the last four months to give in and let them play it on oboes. It's an academic argument, but it's also a musical argument."

"The difficulties in presenting the piece are legendary and have been since Bach wrote it," Mr. Crawford says. (In fact, the complete work was performed in its entirety until 1859.) "The history of the piece is complex. Every conductor has to sort through volumes of research and the scores themselves to try to determine Bach's intentions."

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