in: Reviews

June 3, 2014

Chorus pro Musica Sings Bach

by

Jamie Kirsch (Santa Mila photo)

Jamie Kirsch (Santa Mila photo)

Under the baton of Jamie Kirsch Chorus pro Musica and chamber orchestra gathered Saturday night to present J. S. Bach’s B-Minor Mass to a good-sized audience in Jordan Hall. With a sextet of solo singers familiar to our readers and beloved by Boston audiences, this concert was highly anticipated.

Soprano Teresa Wakim delivered her customary sweetly powerful singing, while soprano Elisabeth Marshall offered a nicely blended and nuanced reading in her joint solo with Wakim in Christe eleison. Marshall shone again in a formal and stylized reading of the Laudamus te. Alto (more accurately, countertenor) Reginald Mobley I had not heard before; he came to the fore in the Qui sedes and Agnus Dei, as well as his duet with Wakim in Et in unum Dominum, here performed with tight ensemble and a careful attention to blending of voices and merging of parts. I was struck by his beautiful and powerful voice, with good enunciation and intelligent phrasing. The Agnus Dei was especially lovely, and I look forward to hearing Mobley again. Jason McStoots, tenor, substituted for an ailing Matthew Anderson and this was announced about a week before the event; McStoots, as usual, gave a fine reading of these solos and clearly stepped in with this music already familiar and prepared. Bass David McFerrin sang the solo in Quoniam tu solus sanctus and again in Et in Spiritum sanctum; the latter, especially, was quite moving, with McFerrin singing this with a guileless simplicity and directness that matched the words and setting.

The weight of singing this Mass falls on the chorus, and Chorus pro Musica gave a fine account of Bach’s music. The singers had mastered the challenges of this work and were solid throughout. An entrance or two might not have been pitch-perfect and a couple long phrases had poorly-timed breaths, but these minor issues aside, the good far outweighed the bad in the two hour experience. The Et incarnatus est really showcased the talents of the chorus, as they achieved a sense of intimacy and captured the depth of the music expressing this central tenet of the Christian mystery; their engagement and execution in this movement were sublime.

The orchestra were compleat collaborators throughout the evening. Many faces in this instrumental ensemble were familiar, with several string players being recognizable as members of A Far Cry. Jesse Irons served as Concertmaster and soloist, with Marshall, in Laudamus te, where his playfully virtuosic playing was an intelligent counterpoint to Marshall’s more reserved vocal delivery. Jennifer Slowik on oboe d’amore added to the beauty of the Qui sedes. Whitacre Hill, horn, joined McFerrin for the Quoniam, with declamatory paeans of praise. Vanessa Holroyd, flute, soloed in Domine Deus and Benedictus, a nuanced partner in both. Throughout the Mass, Jacques Lee Wood, principal cello, executed the basso continuo line with vigor and aplomb, seeming as fresh at the end of the evening as at the beginning.

All the elements for a knockout performance were present—great instrumentalists, wonderful soloists, skilled and prepared chorus. Somehow, though, this evening never  exceeded its parts. The Domine Deus was wobbly, and perhaps unsettled in tempo. There were balance issues in almost all of the movements with solo singers; this I attribute to positioning them down stage, stage left and stage right. In Jordan Hall this arrangement did not work and the sound of the soloists did not blend with the sound of the ensemble to make of multiple lines one piece of music. I have never noticed any acoustically dead spots in this hall, so really am at a loss for why some of the singers were hard to hear in some movements but not others; I can only report that I did not hear the proper balance of voices and instruments.

There were clear indications that Kirsch attempted to deliver a reserved reading of the Mass through stately tempi and delivery in the opening Kyrie Eleison and an even more subdued affect in Kyrie Eleison II. In architectural terms, this was to be a Romanesque edifice, and not the more Rococo excrescences of High German Baroque. It’s an interesting approach; I wish it had worked. It wasn’t just the balance and placement issues that got in the way, something essential seemed off—a misalignment of the stars, perhaps. I left with deep regrets.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

4 Comments

  1. My friends and I count ourselves among the fortunate in attendance at Chorus pro Musica’s performance of Bach’s B-Minor Mass Saturday night. We agree with the reviewer that the stage was
    set for something extraordinary and we were not disappointed. Contrary to the reviewer, we found the stars to be perfectly aligned and this piece a gift to humanity, as Bach intended, when performed as well as we had the pleasure of experiencing.

    The reviewer describes Jamie Kirsch’s use of stately tempi and devlivery as interesting, but ultimately an approach that didn’t work because of some undefined intangible deficit. We obviously disagree. While the performance was not perfection because of the balance issues with the soloists, it was infectious Bach-playing. Indeed: Great Bach playing.

    At the end, the audience’s enthusiasm was immediate and sustained. Why is it so many reviewers miss that?

    Comment by Jere Page — June 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

  2. Not sharing audience enthusiasm is different from ‘missing’ it: de gustibus etc.

    Comment by David Moran — June 5, 2014 at 7:38 pm

  3. Re: de gustibus etc.

    De gustibus elegantibus non est disputendum, sed de malis.

    Comment by Jere Page — June 6, 2014 at 11:46 am

  4. I also found the review oddly vague and mysterious in its criticisms. The “something” essential that was missing was never really specified and while the reviewer’s dissatisfaction was evident, the reasons for it were elusive. I found it a magnificent and moving performance but an unsatisfactory review.

    Comment by Stephanie Engel — June 10, 2014 at 10:28 pm

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