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Live Arts brings delicate touch to Bach's 'Mass in B-Minor'

St. Anne's Church in Annapolis was filled last weekend with the miraculous sound of the Annapolis Chorale Chamber Chorus, joined by the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and six guest soloists for two great performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B-minor.

This performance of Bach's medley of masterworks was the first by Live Arts Maryland music director J. Ernest Green and his chorus, lending the added luster reflected by their joint discovery of its musical secrets.

Regarded as a supreme achievement by music scholars, Bach's Mass is also an enigma, a Latin work composed by the Protestant "Cantor of Leipzig," and finished in the last year of his life.

The Mass reflects Bach's profound devotion to God and to music. It is a summary of sacred music in diverse styles from various periods of Bach's 25-year Leipzig career.

In his introductory remarks, Green noted that he and the chamber chorus began working on this complex piece last fall and during their immersion had gained insight into it. Green explained that the Mass starts in the key of B-minor but ends in D-major and displays a wide range of harmonies and musical styles along the way. It consists of Bach's reworked pieces written over a period from 1724 to shortly before his death in 1750.

The first performance of the Mass in its entirety did not occur until the 19th century. More recently, the trend has gone from large choruses to smaller ones, some interpreting the work by using period instruments to approximate the sound of Bach's era with greater authenticity.

For this performance, Green chose a relatively small orchestra of 23 players and a chorus of 42 singers, plus six soloists who alternated between singing solo and aria sections spaced between the choral movements.

The audience's approach to this supreme achievement in liturgical music might have been influenced by the setting at St. Anne's Church, which seemed entirely compatible with a work created for worship and instruction.

At Friday's performance, the powerful opening of repeated "Kyrie" instantly produced a wondrous sound to gain our rapt attention. Continuing in this section was a soprano duet sung by Kimberly Christie and Caitlin Vincent, one agile voice embellishing the other in turn to produce interesting vocal harmony accompanied by expressive violins.

The "Gloria" section brought the whole chorus singing joyous praise to God that evolved into mezzo soprano Catrin Davies' serenely assured "Laudamus te" followed by tenor Frederic Rey and soprano Vincent in a "Domine Deus" duet.

After a majestic choral section, mezzo soprano Susan Fleming offered a sublime "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris" with sensitive oboe accompaniment. This was followed by baritone David Murray singing his first aria with sonorous power and reverence before the chorus closed the section with "Cum Sancto Spiritu."

The chamber chorus sang an exultant "Sanctus" section before the ultimate expressions of praise and gratitude that comprise the "Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem" section, which concludes the Mass.

The "Benedictus" was beautifully sung by tenor Rey, who met all vocal demands while maintaining a sweet, prayerful expression to capture the essence of the passage that was reinforced by the fine flute accompaniment.

Throughout these sections, the well-rehearsed chorus continued its informed, inspired performance, bringing touching vocal beauty and a reverent gravity that the work requires. In fact, insofar as I could determine, the ensemble of choral and solo singers met all demands of this notoriously difficult work.

For me, the most outstanding soloist was Fleming, whose voice seemed truly to become part of the orchestra, as its most expressive instrument. A two-time recipient of fellowships for the Bach Aria Festival in Stony Brook, N.Y., Fleming noted in a post-performance discussion that she has had much recent experience in a number of Bach concerts.

The Annapolis Chamber Orchestra added drama and substance throughout the performance, consistently fulfilling whatever seemingly impossible demands that were made. Rarely was there any evidence of imbalance where the chorus was temporarily overwhelmed by the musicians — a nearly inevitable occurrence considering the close proximity of the singers and musicians.

Most importantly, credit must be given to musical director Green for his ability to bring out all the textures of each passage and conquer all complexities to produce a magnificent musical proclamation of composer Bach's own profound spirituality.

Next on schedule for J. Ernest Green and the Annapolis Chorale is the Verdi Requiem on April 20 and 21 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. To order tickets call the box office at 410-280-5640.

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