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.
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.