The Choral Arts Society of Washington brought forth a momentous occasion to The Kennedy Center Concert Hall on yesterday afternoon with their undertaking of Johann Sebastian Bach’s legacy masterpiece, his Mass in B Minor.
In its fiftieth anniversary season, the Choral Arts have decided to celebrate in fanfare with this choice of repertoire for their first full-scale concert of the season.
Dubbed by Choral Arts Artistic Director Scott Tucker to be “the greatest work in the history of Western culture,” Bach’s Mass is a behemoth of a piece lasting almost two hours in length and comprising full chorus, orchestra, and solo quintet.
The piece itself is a challenge to perform, and to even comprehend, as one work. It was not created to be one entity in mind or production; indeed, it is a conglomeration of various small segments written or piecemealed from different eras of the composer’s career. Nor did it ever see itself performed in its entirety in Bach’s lifetime; the first full performance of the Mass was in 1859, over one hundred years after his death.As pointed out in the program notes, the Mass had no practical value to Bach or the world in which he and his music resided: it was not Lutheran, not in German, and too long to ever be entertained in an actual church service.
Consisting of four parts, the work is the homage of a devout Christian, its musical structure intended as a reflection of devout Christian theology. The Mass is not a practical piece, but rather one created for the sake of art and its posterity and the preservation of Bach’s scholarship and legacy.
The chorus in its full capacity is just that, and more – wonderfully full in sound, breadth, depth, and tone, filling up the hall. Intertwined between subtle lines in the layering of everything is the choral orchestra, whose especially talented winds section must receive special commendation. Artistic Director Scott Tucker is the gravitas behind the magic. Musical momentum is a subtle and bidding force under his baton, and there is a maturity behind the tone of the sound, especially in the large ensemble movements like the opening Kyrie, that reflects a solid balance between orchestral, choral vocal, and solo vocal strains.
The featured solo vocal talents included sopranos Madeline Apple Healey and Rosa Lamoreaux. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, Tenor Thomas Cooley, and Bass-Baritone Michael Dean, rounded out the lower male voices.
All were delightful, carrying their parts in full fervor and grace. They breathed life into the sub-movements of the Gloria and the Credo, both of which are of nine parts. Each of those parts is unique and separate in a way; one imagines a nice solid pause between them. And they were increasingly more beautiful in progression from the Gloria through the Credo and the final Amen before the Sanctus.
It is here that the solo artists shine through, especially where the chorus takes a background seat in favor of the solo voice and accompanying instrumentals.
It would be remiss to not specially highlight countertenor Daniel Taylor’s beautiful opening notes of the renowned Agnus Dei aria. The hush of the hall in that moment is truly something special. But it is the final ensemble Dona nobis pacem that brings the expansive breadth of the piece full circle and reaches true exaltation in its tonal layering It brings the ensemble heavy front and tail ends of the piece together in unified symmetry.
The Choral Arts Society’s self-stated mission is the pursuit of excellence in choral repertoire and performance, and it reached that very place this evening. Bach’s Mass in B Minor was a true performance of ulterior refinement, nuance, and beauty.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Choral Arts Society of Washington Mass in B Minor was performed for one night only on Sunday afternoon, November 2, 2014, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets to future Kennedy Center events, please visit their calendar of performances. For future Choral arts Society events, go to their website.