Sunday, January 26, 2014

LA Master Chorale Masters Bach's B-minor Mass

By Douglas Neslund

There is nothing small or insignificant about Johann Sebastian Bach. He is measurable only in the gigantic: his music, his appetite, his physical size, his ego, his family, his ambition and finally, his place in the pantheon of musical genius. "It is Bach," John Eliot Gardiner declares, "making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form." People make pilgrimages to Leipzig to hear his music performed, as it is daily in Thomaskirke. and to weep in gratitude over his grave for his enormous gifts left to us. Somehow, it is not impossible to believe that, were he to return from the grave, Bach would be immensely pleased.

However, he might have wished to be born earlier in the Baroque period, as that style was waning in popularity as he aged in favor of the newer Classical period. And by the time of his death, Baroque performance was virtually extinct. Nevertheless, the aging Bach managed to piece together a major work that we know as the B-minor Mass (BVW 232). Bach had written four other mass fragments in the Lutheran format (Kyrie and Gloria), but the evangelist composer had not written a mass in the form of the Roman Catholic Ordinary.

In semi-retirement, Bach had more time to compile and compose than in his earlier years, when new Cantatas and other liturgical-oriented music must be written, each with its own deadline to be met. Among the hundreds of choral items already in his oeuvre were works that met his needs for the new Mass. He found an early Kyrie and Gloria that he had once referred to as “unworthy” in an introductory letter to Augustus III, the new sovereign of Saxony.   In this setting, those movements are anything but “unworthy.”

In the pre-concert lecture, Maestro Grant Gershon, clearly explained how it is that Bach stands so large in the musical landscape: he could calculate (if that is the correct term) the horizontal counterpoint concurrently with the vertical chordal structure, where most other composers were one-directional.

So how did the music sound, you ask? By far and away, it was a most satisfying performance. One could quibble about a tempo here, the use of hiccups in places Bach did not indicate in the score, but in the main, a really well worked-out approach. If one may make a prediction here, it will be fascinating to hear the next iteration of the B-minor Mass in seasons to come. Maestro Gershon has spent, as has the Master Chorale, a lot of time thinking through the piece, and rehearsing it to a polished state of resolution superior to most other extant performances and recordings. But one has a feeling that he and they will present us with even fresher and more distinctive ideas as time ripens the work in their collective minds.

The opening chord - “Kyrie” - almost took the audience by surprise. The Master Chorale was ready for it, as was Steve Scharf’s excellent Master Chorale Orchestra. At this point, Maestro Gershon chose to employ the melody, broken as it was, into two-note hiccups (not indicated at the outset in the original score, but to be found later in the orchestral parts), the result of which was more reverential than penitential, but the gorgeous altos’ tone melted even the stoniest ear. The “Christe” duet was sung by soprano Suzanne Anderson and mezzo Adriana Manfredi; for those sitting further away from the stage than the immediate orchestra section, their contribution was unfortunately virtually inaudible. When the second “Kyrie” arrived, Maestro Gershon chose to employ the hiccup (Ky/ri/e) as each choral section introduced the main musical theme, but upon reiteration of the theme, had the Master Chorale revert to legato, allowing the melody to coalesce into place.

“Gloria in excelsis” was joyously sung with all pistons firing. All the rehearsing paid off in clarity, with successive thematic entrances highlighted but not driven. The result is a revelation especially of the inner workings of the choral lines. But “Et in terra pax” became another string of broken two-note phraselets when first sung by each section in turn, which is indicated in the score for the strings, but not for the chorus. “Laudamus te” belonged to mezzo Callista Hoffman-Campbell, who sang it with satisfying strength and musicality, brilliantly accompanied by Concertmaster Joel Pargman. “Gratias agimus tibi” was again a total choral effort that was right in so many aspects: involvement in the emotional value of the text as well as beautiful choral landscaping and phrase shaping.

Soprano Elissa Johnston (aka the Maestro’s life partner) and tenor Jon Lee Keenan shared the “Domine Deus” duet. Both singers are consummate musicians and handled the sometimes low tessitura with a reliance on textual delivery. Mr. Keenan’s otherwise musical voice tended to thin out on a certain vowel sound. “Qui tollis peccata mundi” brought the full chorus of 110 singers back into play, with the same beautiful results as before. “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” was mezzo Niké St. Clair’s assignment, and she did not fail to deliver a rich, beautiful tone. “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” employs an accompaniment played by Steve Becknell on the double French horn together with a pair of bassoons accompanying the normally stentorian singing of Steve Pence, whose voice sounded at less than normal strength. “Cum Sancto Spiritu” revived the joy of the “Gloria” chorus, although the speed taken meant the sopranos couldn’t quite manage a couple of their high notes as they flew by. Nevertheless, this provided a good place for an intermission (in spite of the official programme’s advisory that there would not be one).

While patrons enjoy their halftime coffee etc., a note about how different contemporary conductors approach the end of a section or movement. Baroque performance practice has undergone an enormous change over the past 60-75 years. Back then, slow used to infer piety. In a sacred work, allegro (which actually means “lively” or “happy”) could not be taken literally, as it might infringe on the “holiness” of the performance. Or so it was thought. Starting with Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt and others in the late 1960s, Baroque performance practices begin to light up with speedier tempi and greater attention to the use of ancient instruments (or authentic copies thereof), and the use of emotion inherent in the texts. As it turned out, some conductors became addicted to the ever-faster speeds, resulting in chaos and lost textual meaning.

But in our own performance, Maestro Gershon chose to keep one of the cherished attributes of the clichéd mid 20th century performance practice: that of slowing, sometimes drastically, as a movement arrives at an “end station or cadence,” and then taking a page from the retro-revisionist book, making a separation between the penultimate note and the final chord. Except on this occasion, those separations became a feature of their own. In several such places at the cadence in question, not everyone on stage looked entirely sure where the final note would fall as the momentary space varied from time to time.

Opening bars of the "Credo"
The performance continued with “Credo in unum Deum.” Initial sectional entries were sung legato the first time, and then articulated in subsequent entries of the main theme. As to tempo, the Credo is indicated alla breve, but the note values are doubled in the score. One would think that Roger Wagner, whose inaugural Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance 49 years ago of the B-minor Mass in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was the inspiration for this weekend’s celebrations, might have opted to take the tempo a couple of metronomic ticks slower.

Soprano Suzanne Waters and mezzo Michele Hemmings duetted in “Et in unum Dominum” before the traditional emotional shift to the agonizing sorrow in “Et incarnatus est,” said to be Bach’s very last composition, and “Crucifixus,” both of which were sung by the Master Chorale with the most exquisite pianissimos of the performance while losing none of their incisive textual delivery. “Et resurrexit” bursts out and forward, leaving sorrow behind and proclaims the victory of life over death. Baritone Vincent Robles sang the “Et in spiritum Sanctum” that would likely benefit from a bass-baritone voice, given its occasional dip into the bass range. The “Confiteor” movement is a strange bird, seemingly written by another hand. But here, Maestro Gershon achieved a masterful touch in making the inherent cantus firmus sing out whenever it appeared. Suddenly, the movement makes musical sense. “Et expecto” burst forth with the three “Bach” trumpets blaring perhaps just a bit too enthusiastically.

Maestro Gershon allowed perhaps three or four seconds to elapse between the final notes of the “Et expecto” and a subito downbeat of “Sanctus.” The oceanic triplets washing across the stage and from side to side are marvelous invocations of angelic hosts singing “holy, holy, holy.” Clarity, together with holding back a bit on the opening waves allowed the Master Chorale to find ever-increasing power and joy before the music suddenly shifts into “Osanna in excelsis,” sung with precise diction and choral balance.

Pablo Cora employed his light tenor to good effect in the “Benedictus” before the “Osanna” returned with all the initial joy in place. No greater change of emotion could be envisioned than the transition from “Osanna” to “Agnus Dei” – one of the most iconic alto solos ever written, in which the soloist, on this occasion the excellent Janelle DeStefano, must negotiate awkward vocal leaps that take the singer from one tonality to the next, requiring a literal leap of faith that it will all work out. There are traps rhythmically as well: normal phrases are sometimes lengthened by a couple of measures. Calculating how much of a breath to take, and how to preserve it enough to achieve the phrase ending –a great challenge well met by Ms. DeStefano.

The wind section of the orchestra deserves high praise for various obbligato accompaniments in solo sections of the score. Lisa Edwards contributed continuo support on the smallish portative organ, which was difficult to hear.

All of which leads us to the grand finale: “Dona nobis pacem,” a soaring prayer for peace resting on the fugal phrase: sol-la-ti-do that again and again emerged from the choral tapestry, building, slowly and inevitably with the orchestra to a thrilling, sublime, spine-tingling finish.

Photo credits: Various Wikipedia sources and David Johnston, used with permission

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