Back Bay Chorale closes season with the drama and consolation of Bach’s Mass in B minor

May 20, 2019 at 11:03 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Scott Allen Jarrett conducted the Back Bay Chorale Sunday in Bach’s Mass in B minor.

“Bach’s works remind one of fine and valuable lace,” Wanda Landowska wrote in 1906. “We must bring out its scientific complication.”

That quote captured the heart of a settled debate over how Bach’s music should be interpreted most effectively. Though it was once played with a nod to the values of romanticism, Bach’s music is often experienced today through the historically informed approach, a choice that brings particular vitality and clarity to the composer’s florid lines.

But there’s still something to be said for listening to Bach’s cantatas and masses with modern instruments and a large choir, where complexities of the individual lines are enveloped by plush sonic tapestries. Such was the case Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre, where Scott Allen Jarrett led the Back Bay Chorale in Bach’s Mass in B minor to close their season.

Bach completed the Mass in B minor in 1749, one year before his death. By building upon movements he had written for the Dresden Court in 1733 as well as retooling a few secular cantatas, he crafted the score as a final testament of music and spirituality, culminating his life-long ambition to create a complete repertoire of sacred music.

Running nearly two hours in length, the mass fuses together elements from seemingly disparate musical worlds. Its arias and duets have an operatic style and charm, while the choruses spin out intricate fugues, traits especially common in Bach’s sacred music. Given such an eclectic mix, the B minor Mass is indeed what writer and Bach scholar Norbert Bolin calls “a synthesis of learning.”

Jarrett led a performance well attuned to the lyricism, emotional gravity, and stirring drama captured in this work. Leading with waving gestures, the conductor drew attention to each curling melisma, trickling passage, and harmonic suspension.

Following his guide, the chorus sang the interweaving lines of the “Kyrie” with grace and crisp diction. The “Gloria” coursed vibrantly, and Jarrett found all the exuberance of the “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” the severity laden within the “Et incarnates,” and the desolation of the “Qui tollis.”

The afternoon’s soloists also brought a searching and intimate approach to the mass’s arias and duets.

In the “Domine Deus,” Sarah Yanovitch’s silver-toned soprano complemented Patrick Muehleise’s bright, clarion tenor. Yanovitch also made a fine match with mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, in an elegant rendering of the duet  “Et in unum Dominum.”

Muehleise sang the “Benedictus” with a tinge of melancholy to make the music lift like a personal prayer. Bass-baritone Edmund Milly projected the “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” with a similar soft delicacy and personal warmth not normally experienced in performances of this work.

Filling in for Sonja DuToit Tengblad, soprano Sarah Brailey sang the “Laudamus te” with rich, buttery tone. She and Yanovitch combined forces in a conversational “Christe eleison,” each singer seeming to finish the other’s sentences.

Throughout the performance, the Back Bay Chorale Orchestra provided supple yet sturdy support. Jarrett shaped the string lines in the slow movements with subtle crescendos to match the singers’ phrasing.

Wind passages were handled just as beautifully. Oboes and English horns delivered pastoral glow to the “Qui sedes.” Whitacre Hill’s French horn solo in the “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” added a splash of light to the darkness conveyed by singer Milly, and the perfectly executed trills and fanfares from the trumpeters brought out the verve and zeal of the mass’s choruses.

Scott Allen Jarrett leads the Back Bay Chorale in music by Handel and Mozart 8 p.m. November 9 at St. Cecilia Church.

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