Friday, April 20, 2018

Bach's Mass in B Minor reaches heavenward in Trinity Music and PBO performance

Guest review by Phillip Ayers

What a joy it was to be in attendance at the first performance of the “Bach B Minor” that Trinity Music and the Portland Baroque Orchestra performed on Friday (April 13). Trinity Cathedral was packed to the brim. It would be interesting to find out from attendees what, exactly, were their reasons for being there. As Canon Matthew Lawrence remarked in his opening welcome, “This is a sacred space.” And sacred spaces are for anyone. All are welcome! So, whether or not this was a “spiritual” experience, as it certainly was for me, or not, it was an honor to be with all the others Friday.

This monumental work was presented with an intermission, which no doubt was a practical consideration; but I would have preferred an uninterrupted performance. Sure, it would be a long time in a sitting position, but the whole thing is “of a piece.” A few weeks ago, the Oregon Symphony performed Verdi’s "Requiem" without an intermission and I didn’t hear any complaints in the restroom afterwards!

The arrangement for a large-scale work such as this in a worship-space is problematical and this was coped with rather well. The soloists had to move forward from a side position when they sang, and members of the choir had to reposition themselves from their seats to where they would sing. But none of this was distracting. At first, I thought that moving the altar to one side, as it is for organ recitals sometimes, and having all the performers on the altar-level would have been better for the overall performance. But the acoustic is such that, if the choir are forward, the effect is better for the listener in the nave. Visibility of the performers was difficult as well. But, the altar stayed in place, thus emphasizing that the “B Minor,” concert-piece that it is, is very much a mystical, spiritual experience and calls for an appropriate setting.

Bruce Neswick, Canon for Cathedral Music at Trinity, introduced the performance and its conductor, David Hill, conductor of the Yale Schola Cantorum and the Bach Choir of London, as well as other distinguished positions in Leeds and Bournemouth. In doing so, Canon Neswick mentioned that it was a performance of the "Bach B Minor Mass" by the Bach Choir in 1847 that heralded the revival of this massive work.

For me, openings of large choral works always thrill and the opening of the Bach when the tenors begin the massive fugue in the Kyrie is no exception. It reminds me of the opening of the "Mozart Requiem" with the clarinet’s pungent introduction to the choral exclamations of Requiem aeternam and Kyrie. I sat mesmerized and almost in tears. The careful enunciation of the text, taken up by the altos, then the first sopranos, then the second sopranos, and finally the basses, etched an indelible impression upon me.

The care that singers and players gave to the entire production was admirable, and many things stand out. First, the singers: all five soloists were outstanding. The two sopranos, Trinity’s own Arwen Myers and Estelí Gomez sparkled especially in their duet in Christe eleison, German tenor Nils Neubert shone in the Benedictus and the bass Jesse Blumberg stood in the pulpit for Quoniam tu solus sanctus, declaiming the Most High in an expressive fashion. He also executed the wide range necessary to sing Et in Spiritum Sanctum in the Credo. Countertenor Daniel Moody’s crisp, clear (and high!) blessed instrument rang out in all of his arias. The whole ensemble alternated with the choir, providing a wonderful contrast in two places in the score.

Members of the Portland Baroque Orchestra were at their best, accompanying the Trinity Choir and the soloists, carefully tuning often. The solo violin (Carla Moore) in Laudamus te, playing 32nd notes with great ease, was a complement to the excellent singing of the soprano. Janet See, playing a wooden transverse flute, stood out in the Benedictus. But the surprise of the evening was hearing—and seeing—Andrew Clark play a corno da caccia in the Quoniam. This remarkable instrument has a bell that seems like it is a mile from the rest of the horn, and Clark played from memory using only his embouchure (lips, as there are no valves) to bring off this difficult music.

As a choir singer myself, I’m always on the lookout for how a choir works with a conductor, particularly one who is a guest, such as Mr Hill. The choir was expertly prepared by Canon Neswick and his assistants, Christopher Lynch and Arwen Myers (one of the soprano soloists) well in advance of this performance. Hill had only three rehearsals last week before the first performance to bring his particular skill and expertise to the group, and the final result was stupendous. It was noticeable that a few times the conductor pointed to his eye as though to signal the chorus to watch him more closely, and a few singers were careful about that. However, having sung this work before, I would have to say, “This is a lot of music!” It is also complex and requires the utmost in attentiveness to notes, dynamics, shaping of sound, and the conductor’s requirements. So, noses in music result! It must also be said that this choir is made up of both professional singers, many of whom are salaried, and “your regular amateur” singer. (Remember that “amateur” means “lover.”) Also, the choir had just come off of a heavy Holy Week and Easter schedule, singing for all the liturgies that go with it.

A small omission in the program was that of the organists’ names who played with the continuo: none other than Bruce Neswick and Chris Lynch.

Two outstanding moments come immediately to mind to acknowledge the choir’s hard work: (1) Crucifixus was stunningly sung, the ending quietly elegant; (2) Dona nobis pacem at the work’s conclusion was glorious. During this movement, I was immediately reminded of two recent events, one global and the other local. The global: President Trump’s announcement that very day (Friday) of the missile strikes in Syria; the local: carrying my sign at the March 24 anti-gun demonstration downtown which read: “Dona Nobis Pacem!” Give us peace, now and always!

No comments: