Friday, July 19, 2013

Heavenly Bach B Minor Mass – Rilling finale well worth the wait

With one long line of concert goers stretching from Broadway to Park and another extending down Broadway to the main entry of Heathman Hotel, I knew that something was wrong as I approached the front of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last Friday evening (July 12). On the one hand, it was great to see so many people waiting to experience the Bach B Minor Mass to be performed by the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, the Festival’s Berwick Chorus, and soloists under the direction of Helmuth Rilling in what may have been his final appearance in Portland. On the other hand, the line moved incredibly slowly. The same people were standing in front of the ticket windows for an awfully long time before going into the hall, and the ticket handlers inside the booth seemed to be frantically looking at computer printouts. Apparently, a ticket printing problem caused a delay in will-call orders, especially orders that had been done over the phone. But even though the concert started 25 minutes late and not enough programs were printed, those problems faded into the background once the concert began, because the chorus, orchestra, soloists, and Rilling delivered a heavenly performance of the Mass in B Minor.

Bach assembled the Mass in B Minor in 1748 and 1749, drawing mostly from music that he had composed earlier. The Sanctus was first performed on Christmas Day in 1724. He created the music for the Kyrie and the Gloria by 1733, when he presented it to Friedrich August II, the Catholic elector of Saxony. Bach created some of the other movements by drawing from his choruses and cantatas, replacing the German text with the Latin words of the Mass and sometimes reworking the music. According to scholarly research, he never heard the work performed as a whole, though sections of the music were sung in Leipzig, where a shorter version of the Latin Mass had a place in the liturgy.

Singing with great intensity, the members of the Berwick Chorus of the OBF expressed the text and music of the Mass with superb dynamics, achieving super-soft pianissimos and robust fortissimos. One of the hallmarks of this choir is its excellent diction and balance between all parts, and in this performance, the singers excelled in both areas to such a degree that the supertitles were practically unnecessary. Fleet passages, such as when the sopranos sang “Et in terra pax” or when the men sang “Et iterum venturus est,” were elevated because of the choir’s articulation. Also, because of the Schnitz’s acoustics, it a rare event when you can hear a strong legato alto line, but the alto section of the chorus was especially impressive when it entered with a “Kyrie eleison” that could’ve easily been buried. Another divine moment came during the Credo when the choir sang “et sepultus est” in super hushed tones and then exploded into joy with “Et resurrexit!”

Also stellar in this performance were soloists Julia Wagner, soprano, Roxana Constantinescu, alto, Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Tobias Berndt, bass. They sang with impeccable intonation and with enough volume to be heard in the Schnitz, but avoided an overly operatic sound. The duets, such as the “Christe eleison” between Wagner and Constantinescu were exquisitely balanced. Berndt’s got to the lowest notes in “Quoniam tuo solus Sanctus,” but the smooth quality of his baritone range was perfect for “Et in Spiritum Sanctum.” Phan's singing of "Benedictus" was immaculate and filled with emotion.

Under Rilling’s baton, the 32-member orchestra gave a finely nuanced performance, supporting the singers with incisive and sensitive phrasing. That may sound contradictory, but the pleasurable thing about Bach’s music is that it can sound lovely and intellectually stimulating at the same time. Individual accolades go to concertmaster Rahel Rilling, principal flutist András Adorján, principal oboist Allan Vogel, principal trumpeter Guy Few, principal bassoonist Kenneth Munday, and the continuo ensemble (violincellist Dávid Adorján, double bassist Dave Williamson, organist Boris Kleiner, and bassoonist Munday) for contributing a singing sound in accompaniment to the soloists. Hearing Few play the mellow corno da caccia (similar to a hunting horn), which Bach specified for the “Quoniam to solus Sanctus” section, was an extra treat.

Since Rilling, who founded the Oregon Bach Festival with Royce Saltzman 44 years ago, has now handed off the artistic leadership to Matthew Halls, he will move into legendary status. It seems appropriate that Halls will lead the big choral production in Portland next year, but he has some awfully big shoes to fill. According to the OBF web site, next season’s schedule will be announced in September.

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