When you think of a 19th century Mass, you might imagine a grandiose piece of music, featuring a large orchestra, lengthy solos and dynamic percussion. Anton Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor, composed in 1866, has none of that. Yet it remains one of Bruckner’s most hailed compositions, and the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra and Concert Choir’s sensitive, thoughtful performance was truly a delight.
The first half of the program featured three pieces by the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra under the direction of Michael Votta Jr., including Walter S. Hartley’s Concerto for 23 Winds and David Amram’s Concerto for Horn, featuring Maryland Professor Gregory Miller. The orchestra masterfully depicted the fears of a high-wire artist in Jules Strens’ frenetic Danse Funambulesque (1925). The percussion section was a standout, especially in Danse’s dizzying finale.
But the real highlight of the evening was the Bruckner, directed by Dr. Edward Maclary. Joined by the University of Maryland Concert Choir, a small group of 15 orchestra members performed this sparsely orchestrated piece, originally commissioned in 1866 by the Archbishop of Linz, Austria for the dedication of a chapel. Unlike many masses, Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor features no strings, timpani or organ, possibly because the mass was originally performed outdoors. The mass lacks vocal soloists, reflecting the influence of the Cecilian movement, an attempt to reform liturgical music from grandiose “theater” into a style more reflective of the Renaissance composer Palestrina.
While the orchestra is small, the performance felt full and balanced. The choir was simply lovely. Grounded in a solid bass sound and featuring a mature, robust alto section, the singers blended well with each other and with the wind band.
The Credo (Creed) is one of the most important parts of the Mass, as it tells the story of Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection. But since it is so text-heavy, some composers set the text with minimal repetition, making the creed as brief as possible and highlighting other movements instead. But in Bruckner’s Mass and especially this performance, the Credo was a highlight. The transition between the mournful telling of Jesus’s death (“Crucifixus etiam pro nobis”) and the joyful, upbeat telling of his resurrection on the third day (“Et resurrexit tertia die”) was performed with true musical sensitivity and brought tears to my eyes. From the resonant Benedictus to the triumphant “Agnus Dei,” the Mass was beautifully performed.
Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor was performed for one night only on Friday, October 9, 2015 in the Dekelboum Concert Hall at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), in College Park, MD. For tickets to future Clarice events, go to their calendar of events.
The UMD Wind Orchestra and Concert Choir will give an encore performance of Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor at the College Band Directors National Association Eastern Division Conference on March 1, 2016 at 8 PM.