Classical

Bach’s Mass in b-minor Got Audience Hosannas at Music of the Baroque Season Opener

Jane Glover conducts the Music of the Baroque orchestra in Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Credit: Elliot Mandel

The Mass in b-minor is often described as Johann Sebastian Bach’s valedictory masterpiece. It certainly received a masterly treatment by the Music of the Baroque Chorus and Orchestra, whose season-opening performance at Chicago’s Harris Theater September 14 drew roaring ovations for all the performers — from conductor Jane Glover to the four vocal soloists, to the 34-member chorus, and right through to the violinists and bassoonists.

This piece, a two-hour-plus symphonic interpretation of the traditional Latin mass, gets right to the point, with the chorus (20 women and 14 men) launching into the Kyrie Eleison (Lord Have Mercy) on the very first note. Instrumentation changes were based on scripture and mood. The strings-dominated Kyrie section gives way immediately to the heralding trumpets and thundering timpani of the Gloria. The chorus’ mournful reading of the crucifixion in the Credo (the text based on the Nicene creed) segues into a jubilant celebration of the resurrection.

The soloists — soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Jonas Hacker and baritone Tyler Duncan — performed with beauty and intensity, but they did not have the dominant role. Of the 27 parts in this monumental piece, soloists performed in nine. The chorus, under guest director Andrew Megill, made the most of its opportunity to stand out.

Music of the Baroque soloists Yulia Van Doren and Krisztina Szabó. Credit: Elliot Mandel

The history of this piece is somewhat convoluted. Completed in 1749, just a year before Bach died at age 65, the Mass in b-minor was constructed from various sacred works that he composed over decades and then synthesized into a greater whole. Histories suggest that Bach intended it as an exemplary masterwork to be examined by future generations, rather than a performance piece for symphony hall or church (though Bach was Lutheran, the composition follows the form of the Roman Catholic mass, though not perfectly).

While one could visualize a Mozart or Beethoven personally receiving accolades from their contemporary audiences, that was not the case for Bach. Biographers say he never heard the Mass in b-minor performed as a whole. In fact, Bach in his time was regarded more as virtuoso organist than as a composer. His modern acclaim began in 1832 — 82 years after his death — with Felix Mendelssohn’s arrangement and performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The Mass in b-minor would not be performed in its entirety until 1859.

So the appreciative audience at the Harris Theater got to experience a magnificent piece of music that was overlooked by Bach’s peers 270 years ago. Fortunate, if not a little ironic.

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2 replies »

  1. I try not to miss performances of Bach’s “B Minor Mass’as I consider it the greatest piece in Western music history. Saturday night I attended the latest rendition of the work by Chicago’s Music of the Baroque. Ultimately, I came away a bit saddened at their endeavor. Professional and slick they remain. The genius of phrasing used to be the hallmark of the group. That would seem to no longer be the case. More on that later. The good points were the radiant singing of soprano Yulia Van Doren, who has a most beautiful voice. Jonas Hacker brought sweet tone and technical accomplishment to the fiendishly difficult music Bach wrote for the tenor soloist. The oboe playing of Anne Bach in the Qui sedes shows how valuable an asset to the Chicago musical scene this wonderful player has become. Violinist Gina diBello, while not erasing the memories of the great Elliot Golub (but who could) acquitted herself admirably. Cellist Barbara Haffner continues to provide wonderful leadership to the lower strings at every opportunity. The bassoons, led by William Buchman, were wonderful. And the crowning glory of Music of the Baroque remains trumpeters Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer, who with their playing at the top of the baroque architecture continue to amaze. The chorus for me has adopted a style of singing that to my ears is how do I put it, unglorious. It would seem to work from piano to mezzo forte, but when full out singing was required, I was not satisfied. The middle female voices in the Hosanna sections were lost. Now to some points of phrasing. I am a huge fan of the practice of little tiny lifts when there is a jump, or a change of direction in the musical line. At one time this was par for the course of the group. And in repeated phrases, a difference in volume or intensity would seem to no longer be the case. Very little shaping of musical lines. All important appoggiaturas did not have the requisite tension and relaxation. Most disappointing was the “Crucifixus”. It had no drama. I think one must really lean into the words, making it cru-ci FI-xus, growing to the downbeat on the syllable FI. However, even I cannot deny the groups ability to produce an outstanding Sanctus. Just some of my personal thoughts on the event.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Charles. You are obviously a highly knowledgeable and dedicated follower of classical music, and we — and our readers — appreciate your contribution to the discussion.

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