American Bach Soloists, celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, will perform their namesake’s masterpiece, the Mass in B Minor, for the first time in six years, this Saturday night at 8 p.m., at the First Congregational Church, at Durant Avenue and Dana Street, as part of a series of local performances that begin Friday in Belvedere and ends Monday night at the Mondavi Center in Davis.
“It’s ironic,” said ABS musical director Jeffrey Thomas, “that when Bach was compiling the music for the Mass in B Minor, he had no performance in mind; instead, it was meant to be a lasting monument to his style of composition, knowing that in his time it was already fading away. He knew that for two centuries masses had lasted as documents, as examples of older composers’ styles. So he chose some of his pieces from as early as 1714, others as late as 1749—a wide range of examples of composition and counterpoint—for the Mass in B Minor. Even in his day, Bach’s music was known as old-fashioned.”
Asked if there are any new things to be looked for in these performances, Thomas replied, “Do interpretive choices change? At the risk of sounding uninventive, a lot the first time through; other concerts perfect it. The first time one works on it, months and months are spent getting to learn it. I can see the music, the gestures on the page; that’s what determines the choices. I don’t believe in ‘doing something’ to the music. It goes from the page through the eyes to the ears! It becomes a process of polishing, especially the way we work together, playing Bach together, over 20 years. There’s always something to perfect, to illuminate.”
Thomas commented on changes in ABS: “We have a wonderful influx of new talent through our Young Artists Competition every two years. The enthusiasm and commitment to this music, to Early Music performance is as strong as it ever was, or more so.”
“It’s absolutely the right piece for the 20th year,” Thomas concluded. “Because we know it was his intention that this would serve as the example of his very best work, we musicians come to it with a sense of privilege. It’s a great thrill to perform it. And audiences know right off the bat it’s something special—because it’s so powerful, Bach’s commitment to it.”
Poet George Oppen wrote this fragment late in life, found in his study in San Francisco: “Bach: The B minor mass!/I wept because it says/everything that can/ever be said.”