Classical review

BSO offers Bach's B minor Mass in style

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
BSO dedicates this weekend's performance of Bach's monumental Mass to military personnel, past and present.

Composed over the course of more than a decade and lasting much too long for any practical use in a church service, Bach's B minor Mass stands as one of the supreme works of human hands. The ingenuity of the counterpoint, the prismatic orchestration and, above all, Bach's profound treatment of the ancient Latin text make the piece capable of speaking to listeners of any faith and no faith alike.

Absent from its repertoire for 50 years, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is offering up the Mass in a performance that also features the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and four fine soloists, all led by Nicholas McGegan.

The conductor, a widely admired baroque music specialist, can be counted on to encourage transparency of texture and rhythmic buoyancy, which certainly was the case Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore. Much of the orchestral playing had feather-light delicacy. Choristers, too, articulated with a good deal of suppleness.

McGegan was less generous when it came to applying expressive weight. Today's historically informed approach to Bach eschews the broad tempos and heightened lyricism that marked interpretations in eras past. Still, I wish the conductor had applied a more deeply poetic touch in the shaping of, say, the "Et incarnatus est" and "Crucifixus" passages of the "Credo."

But, if there was a certain emotional coolness overall, there were many rewards. McGegan's keen appreciation for the baroque dance forms Bach employed in constructing the Mass came through wonderfully at every turn, for example, nowhere more so than in a giddy romp through the "Cum Sancto Spiritu" finale of the "Gloria."

The BSO had an impressive night. In addition to ensemble's well-knit playing, there were admirable solo efforts. Emily Skala spun out pearly phrases in the "Domine Deus" passage, complementing the likewise elegant singing of soprano Yulia Van Doren and tenor Thomas Cooley.

Note, too, Phil Munds' brilliant horn playing in "Quoniam tu solus," smoothly partnering warm-toned bass soloist Dashon Burton. Countertenor Christopher Ainslie sounded dry at times in his solos, but, like his colleagues, shaped the music sensitively.

A few tentative moments aside, the chorus maintained technical clarity and tonal blend, rising to climactic peaks with particularly telling force.

Taking note of Memorial Day, the BSO is dedicating performances of the B minor Mass to members of the armed forces who died serving their country. And free tickets are being offered to military personnel, as well as veterans and their families.

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If you go

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org (for military personnel and veterans: bsomusic.org/memorial).

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