Bach’s B Minor Mass draws cheers on Sunday

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.  It was a major musical event for Boston, signaling the start of the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter. 

I witnessed the Sunday afternoon performance, conducted by Harry Christophers with his usual verve, as the nearly full house sat immersed in Bach’s genius for two and one-half hours (including intermission). The effect was overwhelming. An extended standing, cheering ovation closed the afternoon. 

Christophers gave this sprawling compilation its own momentum while also pacing the material for modern ears. He carefully left breathing space after each of the 25 sections – many of them virtually stand-alone works with familiar airs from Bach’s voluminous oeuvre. Scholars see the Mass as a synthesis of all he had learned as a musician throughout his long life. 

Christophers, H+H artistic director, said in a video description that this “incredibly complex work” is a daunting challenge for his singers and instrumentalists alike. “For me, it’s part of Bach’s legacy for us to revel in today.” 

Bach completed the masterwork just a year before he died, never having heard the work in its entirety. It is frequently performed and recorded today for its musical depth and its historical sweep. The four “books”, or major parts, comprise a collection of monuments to all his major Baroque contributions -- fugue, advanced counterpoint, dance-like passages, cantatas, vocal and instrumental solos, and massive choral works (some in six or eight parts) that interplay with the orchestra’a strings and brass. 

In one stunning contrast in the Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed), the morose Chorus ‘Crucifixus’ abruptly shifts mood and tempo into the joyous ‘Resurrexit’ Chorus, reflecting Scripture’s chronology in both Lutheran and Catholic doctrine. 

The program notes invite the audience to listen for a “profusion of embellishments and melodic figures that turn and leap”. The Mass structure seems to arc over the patchwork of disparate elements. 

Christophers, an expressive, sinuous conductor, was able to adapt his podium approach to mirror each style. Holding all these moving parts together is a feat of synchronicity that seemed easily within his reach. 

Many of the soloists merit singling out -- soprano Sarah Yanovitch and Steven Caldicott Wilson who blended their rich, rounded voices particularly well in their duet in part one, the Missa. Later in the same part, mezzo-soprano Clare McNamara showed her power in the Aria. 

The lovely tenor voice of Steven Reed, backed by the flute of Christopher Krueger, produced a memorable Aria in the Osanna. 

The concert opened with the annual Collaborative Youth Concert, singing Mozart’s Gloria from Coronation Mass K. 317 along with H+H players. Students from Boston Latin School, Falmouth, Lunenberg, Wellesely high schools and Lynn English High School combined their voices in the choir.

 

Another version of this review appeared in https://www.classical-scene.com

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Flautist Kreuger was honored prior to the concert for his 40 years of H+H collaboration that culminated Sunday with his retirement. Tributes from colleagues, reproduced in the program notes, praised him for his “grace and calm under pressure” and called him a “warm and friendly soul”. The Mass gave him several opportunities for solo turns.

 


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