Arts & Events

New: American Bach Soloists Perform Bach’s B-Minor Mass

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday August 08, 2016 - 01:52:00 PM

Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental B-Minor Mass was a product of the last years of his life, though its origins lie in various earlier periods of his career. As Jeffrey Thomas, Musical Director of American Bach Soloists, observes in program notes for these performances, “The genesis of the Mass in B Minor – so admired for its colossal dimensions and encyclopedic stylistic variety – is actually a long history of separable parts. Although Bach compiled the music for this work in the last years of his life (1748-1749), most of the movements had been composed long before or were reworked from earlier pieces.” There is no evidence that the B-Minor Mass was ever performed in Bach’s lifetime, and it is assumed that in creating this work Bach was offering a sort of valedictory compilation of what he could do in the realm of the Latin Mass. 

On Sunday evening, August 7, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, American Bach Soloists gave the first of two performances of Bach’s B-Minor Mass. (The second performance will be Sunday, August 14 at 2:00 pm at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.) With Jeffrey Thomas conducting, ABS and the American Bach Choir plus numerous guest soloists gave a stirring performance of Bach’s great B-Minor Mass. The opening Kyrie features repeated phrases of staggered two-note combinations, which offer a suspenseful prelude to the musical drama about to unfold. The Chorus then intones the words Kyrie eleison. Soon a duet occurs for two sopranos. Soprano 1 was elegantly sung by Ashley Valentine, a recent graduate of San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Soprano 2, to whom is allocated the lower voice, was richly sung by Kerry Holohan.  

The lengthy Gloria opens with Chorus backed by three trumpets. The aria Laudamus te was sung by mezzo-soprano Kim Leeds accompanied by a brilliant violin solo played by Marie Nadeau-Tremblay. There ensued a duet for soprano and tenor, Domine Deus, Rex coelestis, elegantly sung by Eunji Kim and Jorge Prego, accompanied on flute by Christa Evans. The Chorus then prays to him who taketh away the sins of the world. Next comes the aria Qui sedes ad dextram Patris, admirably sung by countertenor Patrick Dailey, whose crystal-clear voice rang out with celestial beauty. Dailey was accompanied by Fiona Last on oboe d’amore. The aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus received a somewhat weak account by baritone Ethan Sagin, accompanied by Sadie Glass on horn, and Ben Matus and Leah Kohn on bassoons. Lastly, the Chorus ended the Gloria section with a rousing Cum Sancto Spiritu.  

After intermission ABS returned for the second half of Bach’s B-Minor Mass. The Symbolum Nicenum section offered a duet for soprano and alto, sung by Christina Kay and Emily Skillling, respectively. Three brief movements for Chorus include, among others, the Crucifixus, which Bach borrowed from music he composed back in 1714. The Crucifixus, appropriately, is a slow and somber bit of music, heavy with the pathos of the death of Christ on the Cross. The Resurrection is then celebrated with lively gusto by the Chorus and orchestra. Baritone Bryan Jolly gave a robust aria, which was followed by the Confiteor for Chorus, the only music Bach newly composed for inclusion in his B-Minor Mass.  

The brief Sanctus section, which dates from 1724, is sung by the Chorus, backed by trumpets, timpani, oboes, strings and basso continuo. The final section includes a Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem. The Osanna offers the Chorus backed by the same orchestral combination as in the Sanctus. The Benedictus was admirably sung by tenor Jorge Prego backed by a brilliant flute solo from Taya König-Taresevich. The Agnus Dei was exquisitely sung by contralto Robin Bier, and the concluding Dona nobis pacem offered a fervent prayer for peace delivered by the Chorus and orchestra. Throughout this B-Minor Mass, Bach’s use of independent instrumental parts offers tremendous variety in which the composer affirms his mastery of each instrument’s tonal color. Playing on period instruments, the American Bach Soloists under the leadership of Jeffrey Thomas offer about as authentic an interpretation of Bach’s B-Minor Mass as one would find anywhere in the present musical world.