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Wednesday, 04 April 2012 16:55

Concert review: Monumental Bach 'Mass in B Minor' with the symphony and chorus at Powell Hall, March 31 and April 1
Written by Gary Liam Scott

One might ask why a good Lutheran boy like J. S. Bach would choose to compose a Catholic Mass, let alone infuse it with the very essence of his genius.  But more importantly, we should see the Mass in B minor not as a tribute to any one religious path, but as a monument to the spiritual yearnings of all people, regardless of their faith.

And the B minor Mass is indeed monumental.  Although each of its 27 segments is a meditation in itself, the work as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Listening to it can be compared to Buddhist practice, in that the simultaneous lines of counterpoint allow the listener to merge into a void where only the present moment matters.

Sometimes it is insightful to hear how others respond to a particular performance, particularly if they are musical laypersons.  Many listeners in the well-filled Powell Hall were struck by the artistry of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, which has now flourished under the direction of Amy Kaiser for several years.  The Chorus negotiated Bach’s intricate musical thoughts not just with skill, but with an inner understanding of the direction and culmination of each phrase.  Such execution requires not only hard work, but dedicated and knowledgeable leadership.

However, the B minor Mass is not just a showpiece for voices.  Bach wove in instrumental solos—“obbligatos”—to frame and add additional depth to the vocal solos spread throughout the work.  In particular, it is always wonderful to hear an instrument as beautiful and expressive as the oboe d’amore (“oboe of love”), played superbly in these concerts by Cally Banham and Jonathan Fischer.  And although the flute of Bach’s day was a different animal from today’s silvery counterpart, it is difficult to imagine a more beautiful accompaniment than that produced by principal flutist Mark Sparks.  Principal horn Roger Kaza and concertmaster David Halen rounded out the instrumental soloists.  Both performed with the mastery and elegance we have come to expect.

The quartet of vocal soloists was comprised of soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo Kate Lindsey, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Stephen Powell.  The four seemed remarkably well-matches and on pitch, and sang with cleanness and clarity devoid of excess flamboyance, surely as Bach would have wanted.  A bit more projection from each soloist might have been helpful, though, and might have contributed even more to the intensity of the presentation.

Music Director David Robertson presided over the entire performance.  One of his hallmarks as a conductor, balance between orchestra and chorus, was clearly evident.  Robertson seemed undaunted by Bach’s contrapuntal discourse, and directed unflaggingly and boldly.

The fact that this work is scored for both voices AND instruments—whose message does not rely on words—underscores its universality.  Having lived a life marked with his own ups and downs, composing the Mass over a period of 25 years (1724 to 1749, completing the score in the year before his death), Bach understood that each human being walks his or her own path.  262 years later, we are still receiving his benediction.

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