To close out its 2009-10 season, the North Carolina Master Chorale prepared one of the true giants of choral literature, J.S. Bach's Mass in B-minor, S.232. Performed by more than 170 voices, four soloists and a chamber orchestra of nearly 30 players, the music filled Meymandi Concert Hall with quite a glorious sound. From the opening Kyrie, with its crisp phrasing and velvety smooth strings and winds, to the final (and familiar) "Dona nobis pacem," this was a performance to savor.
The Mass, written over a period of many years, covers a wide variety of compositional styles. It is not all grand chorus, nor is it soloist-heavy oratorio. The music itself ranges from dramatic and weighty to surprisingly light and dance-like, with instruments used in both subtle accompaniment and full-blown prominence. The singers and players, led expertly by Master Chorale music director Alfred E. Sturgis, responded to the varied demands of the score with unity, cohesion and considerable skill.
The solo and duet sections were especially fine. Soprano Christina Pier and mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Greene offered the loveliest blends in the "Christe eleison" and "et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum" sections, for example, and Pier and tenor Bob Garver gave a splendid reading of the "Domine Deus" section of the Gloria. Greene's liquid voice was beautiful to hear in the Agnus Dei near the close (which recalls the melody that Bach used some time earlier in a portion of his Ascension Oratorio, "Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben"). Baritone Ken Davis' rich voice stood out in "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" and "Et in Spiritum Sanctum," although his enunciation, especially of consonants, sounded as if it came from too far back in his throat, and many of the "s" sounds were almost lost.
The chamber orchestra performed exceedingly well, with special commendation extended to Carla Copeland-Burns on flute, Brian Howard* on cello, and piccolo trumpeters Timothy Hudson and Van Zimmerman, for example, while concertmistress Rebekah Binford led the lovely string trio (with Howard and Emily Rupp on bass) in the Agnus Dei section. The trio of flute, cello and organ behind Garver in the Benedictus section produced a sweet sound, matching Garver's flowing, effortless singing. The winds behind Davis in "Et in Spiritum Sanctum," with its lilting waltz rhythm, were quite good.
The grand parts were appropriately grand. The conclusion of the Gloria ("Cum Sancto Spiritu") and the conclusion of the Symbolum Nicenum ("Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum") soared, and the latter section was boosted by outstanding trumpet work. So, too, were the Sanctus with the men singing strong chords in dialog with the women's more flowing lines, and the bright and splashy Osanna.
One would be hard pressed to choose a favorite portion, but certainly the somber "Crucifixus" in the Symbolum Nicenum section, with its slow interweaving of parts, followed by the unexpected key change at the very end for "Et sepultus est," was simply stunning. And the chorus handled the composer's demands by negotiating the almost inhuman melismas in the next "Et resurrexit tertia die" portion. In fact, for a piece filled with so many runs, often in super-quick tempi, the chorus' energy never flagged, and all singers were as strong at the end of this lengthy piece as in the beginning.
The shifts in mood during the Mass were interesting to note. What appears to be a massive buildup near the end, highlighted by the Sanctus and Osanna, actually tapers off to a much softer Benedictus, with Garver giving his expressive solo, but then the rambunctious Osanna motif returns briefly, only to slow down again for the lovely Agnus Dei. And then one gets to be thrilled, even inspired, by the closing "Dona nobis pacem," the second go-round for this wonderful melody, which had appeared in the "Gratias agimus tibi" part of the Gloria. This is not a lengthy, spectacular, let-out-all-the-stops closing, to be sure, but a most moving and supremely satisfying one, and the musical forces came together for glorious experience.
Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.