On the cusp of both the Vernal Equinox and the 326th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, the Freisinger Chamber Orchestra brought to life one of the composer’s most profound and fulfilling works, his Mass in B minor, BWV 232, performed in the cozy confines of Old South Church’s Gordon Chapel on March 19.
That a devout Lutheran should endeavor to create a setting of the Catholic Latin Mass might initially seem somewhat perplexing; perplexing, that is, until one takes a generous mental step backward, at which point the bigger picture comes into focus. It actually might be more appropriate to interpret this piece as both the glorification of the concept of a supreme being by a supreme human being and the culmination of a lifetime of transcendent music making. As it turned out, a bigger-picture perspective was also necessary to fully appreciate this particular realization.
As he entered his sixties, Bach’s eyesight was rapidly failing, rendering him all but blind by the time of his death at age 65. Doggedly he persevered, and in his final few years somehow managed to pen his monumental Mass. Truth be told, this was more an exercise in consolidation than in creation, given that most of the music (with the exception of the Credo) had been composed years, if not decades, earlier. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Bach did not live to hear its performance. In fact, this music languished in obscurity through the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; a rendition of the full Mass not taking place until 1859, more than a century after the composer’s death. Today, of course, it’s recognized as one of the preeminent pieces of Western classical music and has become a staple of the repertoire.
The recreation of this Mass, massive in both scope and complexity, is a daunting undertaking for a group of any size and caliber. That conductor Peter Freisinger managed to pull it off with just a small chamber orchestra and only eight singers is a testament to optimism, dedication, talent, and resilient vocal cords. In addition, the small, live space of Gordon Chapel, replete with the highly reflective surfaces of stone and wood, was the perfect small-scale venue for this small-scale group and this very large-scale composition. Cascades of notes reverberated pleasantly in the bouncy acoustic and easily filled the space.
Maestro Freisinger exudes congeniality both on and off the podium. His conducting style appears to be of the ‘broad brush’ (or ‘broad baton’) variety, with sweeping, balletic gestures and barely contained enthusiasm. (Oddly enough, he was actually baton-less during the first two sections.) His tempi were consistently brisk, energetic, and appropriate; his innate musicality readily apparent. An accomplished pianist, organist, violinist, and violist, Herr Freisinger appeared at times as if he were about to reach out and actually play some of the notes himself.
Solo voices were uniformly clear and polished; highlights included the gloriously rich, smooth performance of soprano Heidi Freimanis in the Laudamus te of the Gloria; the velvety dialogue between mezzo Christina Calamaio and oboist Nathan Swain; the exuberant tenor Eric Christopher Perry in the Benedictus, and the impassioned, delectably yummy-plummy tones of mezzo Jacque Eileen Wilson in the Agnus dei. The Gloria also featured a sweetly sung duo by soprano Margaret Felice and tenor Eric Christopher Perry. And here’s something you certainly don’t see every day (or year, for that matter): baritone James Dargan striding briskly from chorus to orchestra, grabbing a violin and casually tossing off the Laudamus te, after which he quickly tucked back in with his fellow singers. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate! Baritones James Dargan and James C.S. Liu shared more than Christian names: their voices were both somewhat on the light side, with little evident gravitas, though highly precise and effective.
Of course, given that the entire chorus essentially consisted of soloists, it’s not terribly surprising that blend was sometimes an issue, and vibrato tended to be a bit too amplified. Balance was also tricky, with instrumentalists (and occasionally just the continuo) overpowering the vocalists at times. The players were a tad shaky, especially in the early going, with the strings being just a whisker out of phase, as well as the occasional brass clam. Ah, but this is where it’s important not to dwell too much on the details, for therein the devil lies. Pulling back slightly, the overall effect is revealed to have been extremely musical and uplifting, a triumph of highly spirited and passionate music making. Certainly a treat to experience such an energetic rendition of such unparalleled music in such an intimate venue. A truly fine birthday gift for Johann.