VAE and CCO present rare gift performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor

By TOM CONSOLO

“Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?”

If that assessment by American composer Michael Torke is true, Greater Cincinnati audiences have a great opportunity to get in a couple of sessions this month when the Vocal Arts Ensemble and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra team up for two performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s autumnal masterpiece. VAE music director Craig Hella Johnson will lead the combined forces at two of the region’s acoustically charmed religious spaces, downtown’s Christ Church Cathedral and Westwood’s St. Catharine of Siena Church.

J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

The Mass in B Minor, as it is more formally known, has long been considered by many as one of the greatest achievements in Western music. Novelist Douglas Adams – renowned author of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and self-avowed “radical atheist” – referred to this work as “…one of the great pinnacles of human achievement. It still absolutely moves me to tears to hear it.” He was not alone.

“If I have to choose any piece out all of the pieces of Western music ever written, I choose the B Minor Mass,” said Robert Porco, who has prepared the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus for its performances for a quarter century. “It’s the culmination of almost everything Bach could do.”

Despite its reputation, performances are relatively rare, largely due to its difficulty. The VAE-CCO collaboration offers a rare chance to see a live performance by a professional choir, said Thom Mariner, a VAE member who will be performing the 110-minute piece for the fifth time. (He’s also co-publisher of Express Cincinnati.)

He remembered in particular a March 1985 performance with Michael Gielen leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of about 40, many from VAE. “We got about two-thirds through the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (the final movement), and I started to choke up. I don’t think I sang the last page at all.”

Why the impact? “Like a lot of things that strike you this way, it’s hard to put things in concrete terms,” said Porco by telephone. “You can do an analysis and explain why it’s great, then there’s the next level, why it’s so moving.”

Take that “Dona nobis,” for example. “The ‘Dona nobis’ is a rather straight-forward melody, said Porco, and we’ve heard it before in the ‘Gratias’ (similar music/different text, earlier in the work), but the way he builds it in terms of tension and drama and waits to bring in the timpani in the most critical moment is mastery of structure, but it works emotionally.”

Johnson, who is beginning his third season as VAE’s music director, echoed that. “It’s quite thrilling on a physical plane, whether one is performing or listening,” he said by telephone from Texas, where he is artistic director of Conspirare, the Austin, Texas-based vocal group he founded. His latest CD with them, “The Sacred Spirit of Russia,” won a Grammy in February for Best Choral Performance.

“The sheer brilliance of the virtuosity — the craftsmanship is exquisite.”

Johnson said he has led Mass in B Minor performances about 15 to 20 times, including a wide variety of performers and performance styles. The first was for a benefit concert at what was then the new Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. Johnson, a Minnesota native and St. Olaf College graduate, was “probably 23” when he led a collection of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

While the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s players will be using modern instruments, Johnson said, “at the end of the day the goal is clarity of the texture and that everything is heard in its place and its texture.” To that end, they’ll employ some period-inspired, back-to-the-future techniques and aesthetics.

Among those is the size of the ensemble, including a choir of just 35. That’s still more than Bach would likely have enjoyed, but likely chosen to balance with the larger sound of modern instruments.

Also like Bach’s own choruses in Leipzig, the soloists for the nine movements that call for them will come from the ranks of VAE. That’s a touch Mariner particularly likes. “It allows the chorus to shine in a different kind of way with the audience,” he said.

Not that anyone will get off easily. One of the few criticisms aimed at Bach is that he writes for voices as though they were instruments, with all the facility for fast-moving notes, long phrases and sharp contrasts in mood and timbre that implies.

“It is incredibly difficult, particularly the fugal things,” said Porco, referring to movements in which the voice parts enter at different times, as in a canon or round. “I’ve always had the idea with this piece, he either had tremendous performers or they were terrible, because Bach doesn’t seem to have considered the limitations he might have had in terms of performers. It’s very virtuosic.”

Bach completed the Mass in B Minor in 1749, just a year before his death. As a summation of all Bach knew as a vocal composer, it is analogous to two other late masterworks, “The Art of Fugue,” which focuses on counterpoint, and the “Goldberg Variations,” a tour de force on melodic variation. “This is Bach’s last word on vocal music,” Johnson said.

It’s also a window into his process as a craftsman. The Mass in B Minor was not written at once. Many of its 27 movements were adapted from music Bach had written up to 30 years earlier. That reflected the common Baroque practice not to let good work go to waste. Further, the extensive reworking Bach gave his material often came close to new composition.

Though it’s a profound statement of personal faith – “It transcends anything else of its type,” Porco said – the mass is also an example of Bach at his most practical. Sections were submitted as a de facto job application to the elector of Saxony in Dresden many years earlier, a show of his talent to earn a court appointment that could ease the stress of his treadmill job in Leipzig.

All Bach’s music is dance, said John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor and author of the biography “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” and indeed all the movements of the mass are tied to dance forms, even those of the gravest depth like the “Crucifixus.” The movements’ styles range from intentionally antiquated, invoking the world Bach inherited from Palestrina, to complex counterpoint of the highest order to arias in the up-and-coming “galant” style that Bach’s sons would consider the norm – all put to the service of greater emotion and expressive depth.

If that didn’t already secure the Mass in B Minor as a masterpiece, the balance of its structure would. Take the second of its four large sections, the “Symbolum Nicenum,” the setting of the Nicene Creed. Its nine movements are arranged in three groups of three movements each, a trinity of musical trinities.

“To me it’s a perfect synthesis of intellectual and structural composition and unity combined with great beauty and spirituality, whether you are a Christian or not,” Porco said. “It’s a very spiritual piece in a philosophical way.”

If this makes the Mass in B Minor sound heavy, it’s important to point out that Bach’s faith made the mass an optimistic statement, an affirmation of his belief in a life to come. The opening profound cry, “Kyrie,” is indeed in B minor, but more than half of the work’s movements are in D major, a symbolic key of triumph.

“One senses that Bach was trying to leave something timeless,” said Johnson. “It’s very touched by a sense of the universal.”

If you go . . .

What: Mass in B Minor 
by Johann Sebastian Bach

Who: Vocal Arts Ensemble 
and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra; 
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor

Where: 8 p.m. Nov. 13, Christ Church Cathedral, 318 E. Fourth St., downtown; 
4 p.m. Nov. 15, St. Catharine of Siena Church, 2848 Fischer Place, Westwood.

Tickets: $30

Info: 381-3300 or vaecinci.org

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