Over the years, this area has been fortunate to experience live performances of the greatest choral masterpieces. While you probably won't find people sitting around bars debating the superiority of one ensemble over another, as you would for sports teams, there continues to be one leader of the pack. It is almost beginning to get boring as I and many other writers keep gushing over the Choral Society of Durham (CSD) conducted by Rodney Wynkoop, but you can't argue with the group's meticulous preparation, great soloists and orchestral musicians, and commitment to the spirit and ideals of the composer in presenting monumental works. The CSD delivered the goods once again on May 8, in Duke's Baldwin Auditorium, as they presented Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor. I've written before about my distaste for performances involving orchestras in Duke Chapel, so it was that much more special that this one took place in the comparatively acoustically-superb Baldwin Auditorium.
The 150-voice choir dwarfed the small but exquisite orchestra comprised of distinguished local musicians from the NC Symphony, faculty members from surrounding universities, and many familiar freelance faces. The opening measures of the "Kyrie" said it all. Quite often you can recognize great playing and preparation in just a few notes. Despite the heavenly length of approximately two hours and 15 minutes, the first four measures are as breathtaking and profound as anything that is to come. The entire chorus made a forceful proclamation and left us on a magnificent dominant chord. The orchestra followed with the subject of a somber and mammoth fugue that is as majestic as anything that Bach wrote. One by one we got to hear each section of the chorus, and the unified attacks, controlled dynamics, and pinpoint intonation were testaments to the discipline and preparation of Wynkoop's chorus.
The "Christie eleison" section of the "Kyrie" introduces two soloists – on this occasion, Ellen Hargis, soprano, and Michelle Wright, mezzo-soprano – for a lovely duo that displayed effortless grace and precision that are very difficult to pull off, given the complexity of the music. During the performance I had a vocal score of the work with me, and I followed it about half the time. Great performances transcend the technical difficulties of the music and give you the impression that what is being played and sung is, in a word, natural. "Laudamus Te" in the "Gloria" section, is a solo for the alto with violin obbligato. Seeing – in the score – the incredible rhythmic complexity of this piece made me even more appreciative of the performance. Wright and Concertmaster Richard Luby sailed through it with joy and spirit, making it one of the highlights of the evening.
James Doing, tenor, was first heard in a duo with Hargis in "Qui tolis peccata mundi." At times his voice sounded a bit strained and behind the orchestra, but that smoothed out as the section proceeded. Bass soloist Christopheren Nomura had his initial solo right before the final chorus of the "Gloria." Nomura has a powerful, clear sound that worked best in the mid to upper ranges. In much of the low tessitura, both the pitch and the enunciation got flabby and unfocused.
This work tests the mettle of the soloists and chorus and the orchestra, too. There are numerous virtuosic passages, and I will probably leave someone out, but special mention should be made of a few. Michael Schultz had several sparkling solos that displayed the essence of high Baroque oboe playing. Kimberly Van Pelt played a dazzling French horn solo. There are quite a few passages with high, bright, and clear trumpet parts that were nailed every time. Throughout, the continuo part featured cellist Lisa Howard Shaughnessy, bassoonist John Pederson, double bassist Robbie Link, and Jane Lynch, organ (although the program incorrectly said "harpsichord").
My one complaint about the performance is that some of the big chorus sections were taken too fast. The same excitement would have been there at slower tempi, without racing, and the polyphony and harmony would have been clearer. Nitpicking aside, this was a performance that I feel fortunate to have experienced. Bach's B minor Mass if often described as one of the great masterpieces of music and one of the greatest creations of man. This performance gave credence to those sentiments.