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Experiencing Bach’s Heights


Nicholas White (file photo)
Nicholas White (file photo)

The culmination of Nicholas White’s first season directing The Boston Cecilia comes on March 21st, Johann Sebastian Bach’s 329th birthday. How better to celebrate both than on a pinnacle in Bach’s range, the Mass in B Minor, in performance at Jordan Hall?

“I will never tire of this piece,” White said in a recent conversation. “Yet I relish the thought that among Boston’s sophisticated listeners, there will be some on Friday who have never heard this music before. I hope our audience in Jordan Hall will love the B Minor Mass as I do, that we will transform their lives with Bach’s masterpiece in the same way we have all been transformed. However many times I have done it, there is a depth of emotion that will never be fully plumbed. For me it is singing and dancing, weeping and laughing. It is heaven on earth.

“Choral music touches me deeply. I started as a little boy in my village church choir in Kent. That stays with you.” He spoke with British understatement through which his love and delight in the wide-ranging choral canon shine through.

At Clare College, as organ scholar and no longer a treble, White sang in the Cambridge University Consort of Voices, 28 in all, where he first performed the Bach B Minor with period instruments at King’s College Chapel and again in London. He studied it deeply with renowned organist, conductor, and composer Richard Marlow, delving into its history, the complex numerology, for instance the symbolism of the trio, and much else, especially the structure of each movement within the perfect form of its whole.

His first job after university, in 1989, was in Lubbock, Texas, where he studied the bass arias in the B Minor with a voice teacher. Although he never performed them, that study—of phrasing and inflection, breath control in long melismatic lines, learning to balance his timbre with the horn and pair of bassoons in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus movement—broadened his appreciation of the soloists’ roles within the work. After moving to the Northeast in the early ’90s, he has played the organ continuo “a handful of times” in New York, Pennsylvania, and several New England states. He also has conducted it with orchestra and informal singalongs.

Having been involved in so many versions and interpretations of this masterwork from various perspectives, how does White determine his own?“It’s the way the piece lives in my mind,” he replied, “the way it feels right. Finding the tempo, articulating phrases,” taking into account the acoustics and character of the venue—all these and countless other considerations. My ideal rehearsal is one without pencils. Let the piece live beyond the markings. It’s important to realize that it’s not just the way this conductor does it.” After a pause, he added that an interpretation may change as one has “grown as a musician, grown as a person. It’s the journey of it,” he said, all the way to the final Dona nobis pacem. It’s a profound human experience. …It tests the performers and listeners as it delights them.”

“The chorus is rich with experienced singers, many who have sung it multiple times, a core reinvigorated with fresh new members. Adding eight of Boston’s finest young soloists and a period-instrument orchestra led by Dan Stepner, can only strengthen our goal to achieve the highest level of musical performance or our concert on March 21st. This is “Cecilia’s mission, as we embrace our future.”

Growing out of the Harvard Musical Association, the Cecilia Society, as it was initially called, was established in 1876. Under the baton of founding conductor B.J. Lang, Cecilia gave the first complete performance of the Mass in B Minor in Boston, at Symphony Hall in December of 1901. At that time many concertgoers considered Bach old-fashioned—too much counterpoint—so it was bold of Lang to introduce this work entire to New Englanders, along with a huge number of premieres, some of which subsequently entered the repertoire.

Last year White, 46, succeeded the celebrated Donald Teeters as Cecilia music director. Since 2011, White has been Chair of the Arts Department, also Director of Chapel Music, at St. Paul’s School, in Concord, New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife Kate Jensik, a professional cellist, and their young son. He has just taken St. Paul’s Chapel Choir on a 10-day tour of English chapels and cathedrals. The thirty-eight students, comprising an SATB choir of teenage girls and boys, were both singing and hearing concerts in Windsor, London, Canterbury, Cambridge, Winchester, Wells, and Bristol, among other venues. White trusts the experience stays with them. “How could it not!”

“In the future I hope to be more and more involved in the musical life of Boston. With several fine music schools here, the many good instrumentalists, beautiful churches, concert halls, and a legacy of organ-building, Boston has one of America’s most vibrant musical scenes.”

Composing is an important part of White’s life, too. He has a number of CDs, with a Grammy nomination for O Magnum Mysterium, which highlight his own music as well as others’, and a steady stream of commissions. The Raven, his setting of Poe’s poem, had its debut last spring to enthusiastic reviews, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC.

For Cecilia’s future, White intends to plan three-to-five-year cycles, featuring young soloists from Boston and occasionally new works by local composers, and on alternate years doing a particularly ambitious concert in Jordan Hall. Cecilia’s fall concert, “The Czech-American Connection,” focuses on Dvořák’s Mass in D Major in its original version, for soloists, chorus, and organ. Janáček, Mahler, and Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and Chichester Psalms round out the program, with an encore of White’s arrangement of “Going Home,” from the New World Symphony. The chorus had a special relationship with Dvořák: in 1892 the composer conducted Cecilia in the first Boston performance of his Requiem.

For Christmas 2015, White hopes to pique interest by pairing two prominent British composers, John Tavener and Richard Rodney Bennett, both of whom died recently. The spring concert will be an overview of German choral music from Schütz to Rheinberger, a little-known yet wonderful composer who taught Boston composers Horatio Parker and George Whitefield Chadwick.

White is committed to exploring new music at the same time that the Cecilia chorus and its audience reexamine old, at the highest level of musical performance. He knows that, for the music to live in our imaginations and hearts, tastes and interpretations must change, and change again.

J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor, Friday, March 21, 2014 at 8:00pm
Pre-performance lecture at 6:30pm by Conductor Emeritus Donald Teeters
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory
The Boston Cecilia, Nicholas White, conductor
With Period Instrument Orchestra, Daniel Stepner, leader

Tickets link here.


Erika Vogel, Sonja Tengblad, sopranos; Clare McNamara, Reggie Mobley, altos
Marcio de Oliveira, Stefan Reed, tenors
Bradford Gleim, James Dargan, basses

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