A Transcendent Bach “B Minor Mass”

Bach Collegium San Diego at St. James-by-the-Sea [photo courtesy of the Bach Collegium San Diego]

Bach Collegium San Diego at St. James-by-the-Sea [photo courtesy of the Bach Collegium San Diego]

Why J. S. Bach composed the B Minor Mass, BWV 232, one of the greatest sacred compositions in western music, may never be known. We know, for example, that Verdi wrote his massive Requiem to honor the memory of the Italian writer and patriot Alessandro Manzoni and that Mozart wrote his Mass in C Minor (The Grand Mass), K. 427, in gratitude to the Almighty for winning the hand of his beloved Constanze.

But while historians remain puzzled about Bach’s “why,” scholar conductors such as Ruben Valenzuela have devoted their energy and critical analyses to the “how” of the B Minor Mass. This past weekend, Valenzuela and his Bach Collegium San Diego offered two period performances of the work, and I was fortunate to attend Sunday’s (April 6) account at the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Valenzuela demanded untrammeled urgency from his singers and instrumentalists: fiery brilliance in moments of praise and exultation and mystical introspection when Bach chose to express the intimacy of personal devotion. Breathtaking precision and unity of articulation in the most complex contrapuntal textures characterized his 19-voice chorus, which produced a virile, bright sonority that 100-voice community choruses never begin to approach. From the 27 Bach Collegium instrumentalists came a mosaic of warm colors and sinuous lines that mirrored and complemented the vocalists’ artful phrasing.

I would be misleading the reader, however, if I left the impression that this performance was about mere virtuosity, of which there was no shortage. I have attended choral conventions and conferences where a choir’s performance was indeed intended to display its virtuosity and the prowess of its star director. And while this Bach Collegium San Diego performance was a concert, this highly disciplined ensemble exhibited the devotion of worship at its best and embodied the unmistakable conviction that the purpose of such exalted music is to experience transcendence.[php snippet=1]

Every movement was worthy of critical commentary, but I will make a few observations to give a sense of the scope of this performance. The exuberant opening chorus of the “Gloria in Excelsis,” royally resplendent in its trumpet and timpani flourishes, set a high standard but was surpassed in elation by the choir’s delirious sonic wave at the opening of the majestic “Sanctus”: vibrant, roiling chords that would leave even the most cynical listener awe-struck. When the baritone Kyle Ferrill finished his athletic, stirring aria “Quonium tu solus sanctus,” the chorus immediately rushed in with its driving “Cum Sancto Spiritu” fugue, another coup of timing that vividly climaxed the lengthy “Gloria” movement.

Sopranos Alice Teyssier and Anne-Marie Dicce aligned their distinctive voices in a mellifluous duo for the “Christe Eleison,” and Teyssier joined tenor Scott Mello and traverso virtuoso Janet See in the polyphonic intricacies of the “Domine Deus” with stunning results.

Michael Wisdom’s surprisingly penetrating countertenor provided the perfect foil to soprano Courtney Curtis’s rounder timbre in their “Credo” duet, yet Wisdom found a more delicate, pleading tone for the hovering phrases of his solo aria in the “Agnus Dei.”  Joined by the See’s elegant traverso in the “Benedictus,” tenor John Russell’s heart-melting legato suspended time traversing that poignant aria that revealed the composer’s intense personal faith.

Mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano’s arias in the “Gloria” found poetry in the composer’s unrelenting florid roulades, and her unflinching command of the beautifully-shaped line was impressive. Baritone Ferrill gently caressed the rocking motifs of his “Credo” aria “Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum,” Bach’s paean to the Holy Spirit, cradled by a trio of ethereal woodwinds (two oboes and bassoon), as transporting an ensemble as I ever hope to hear.

Under the leadership of concertmaster Pierre Joubert, the strings provided consistently energizing support to the chorus and soloists, as telling in the spaces between their notes as in their authoritative downbows. Valenzuela’s regular continuo organist Michael Sponseller carried out his crucial duties with self-effacing mastery.

It is tempting to crown a performance as “definitive,” but that would allow no possibility for further insight and growth on the part of these stellar musicians. Leaving the stately sanctuary of that downtown church on Sunday evening, however, I had that rare sense of completion. Ah yes–that is precisely what this work is intended to convey!

Bach B Minor program

[box] The performances of the J. S. Bach “B Minor Mass” were given at 8:00 p.m. on April 5 at St. Brigid’s Church in Pacific Beach and at 5:00 p.m. on April 6 at First Presbyterian Church of San Diego. The next Bach Collegium San Diego performance is a free noon concert on April 9 at First Lutheran Church in downtown San Diego. The group’s season closes with Handel’s oratorio “Il Trionfo del Tiempo e del Disinganno” on May 30 & 31, 2014.



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