Amy Beach’s neglected Mass gets a splendid revival

November 12, 2017 at 12:54 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Amy Beach's Grand Mass in E flat was performed by the Commonwealth Chorale Saturday night in West Roxbury.

Amy Beach’s Grand Mass in E flat was performed by the Commonwealth Chorale Saturday night in West Roxbury.

Amy Beach saw herself as a pioneer. When the pianist and composer married, her husband, Harvard physician Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, forbade her from performing in public. Yet he encouraged her to write big works that would earn her a reputation in Boston — where, as in Europe, men dominated the field of music.

Three months after her wedding, Beach began work on her first significant work, a Grand Mass in E-flat major for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Beach was self-taught in most matters of composition, and the piece is a remarkable demonstration of technique and expressive pathos. When it was premiered by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1892, many critics welcomed her into Boston’s musical establishment, and she was on her way to becoming one of America’s leading composers.

The Mass has since fallen into neglect, but the enterprising Commonwealth Chorale and New England Philharmonic, led by Chorale music director David Carrier, lavished new attention on the work Saturday night at the Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury. The performance, which also marked Beach’s 150th birthday season, was the world premiere of Matthew Phelps’ new, critical edition of the Mass, which will be published next year.

To organize the Mass, Beach studied similar works by Bach and Cherubini, but she freely incorporated the new sounds of her day. Harmonies are rich, and certain keys highlight specific religious messages. The orchestration is expressive and vibrant. As biographer Adrienne Fried Block has stated, dotted rhythms and trumpets invoke “the church militant.”

But the work is shot through with poignant emotionalism. The Kyrie flows in phrases of warm reverence, and Beach’s intricate counterpoint weaves in soft, luminous textures. Though a concert piece, Beach clearly intended the mass as an expression of deep religious faith.

The Commonwealth Chorale did a fine job of bringing the work to life. The singers delivered their phrases with supple grace and energy when called upon. A few tentative attacks in the work’s contrapuntal sections marred an otherwise exemplary performance. Elsewhere, however, the singing was bright and beaming. The “Et resurrexit” rose and fell like waves, and the lines of “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” were woven into a plush tapestry of sound.

The soloists brought rich vibrancy to Beach’s occasionally dark textures. Dana Lynne Varga sang with a radiant soprano and soft elegance in the “Et incarnates est.” Mezzo-soprano Vera Savage shaped her lines with a spinning vibrato, which gave a touch of intensity to the “Gratias agimus tibi.”

The “Graduale,” the focal point of the Mass, spotlighted tenor Matthew Anderson, who sang with a warm buttery tone. The accompanying solo oboe, in a trickling Bachian line, was like a weeping willow. Baritone Sean Galligan delivered the “Benedictus” with a dark, chocolaty voice and resplendence.

Carrier led with small, deliberate gestures but drew sensitive playing from the New England Philharmonic. Violins added splashes of light, cellos and basses tilted the music towards darkness, and finely crafted phrases from winds and brass dotted the texture with resonant chords. Highlights included English hornist Colton Ray Cox’s solo passage in the “Sanctus,” which bathed the music in a pastoral glow, and Jason Coleman’s silvery cello line in the “Laudamus te.” Maria Rindenello-Parker’s solo harp supplied golden strands to the sorrowful “Agnus Dei” to bring the piece to a heavenly conclusion.

The Commonwealth Chorale will perform Kim André Arnesen’s The Wound in the Water 3 p.m.  March 11, 2018 at the Church of the Holy Name in West Roxbury.

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