Like being picked for a sports all-star team, being selected as a member of the prestigious Vocal Arts Ensemble (VAE) of Durham is recognition of one's superior vocal abilities and musicianship. Most of its singers are chosen from a group of already highly competitive choral ensembles directed by Rodney Wynkoop. The fifteenth anniversary of this highly disciplined yet musically and emotionally flexible ensemble was celebrated at Duke Chapel with a powerful performance of J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor, without doubt one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind.
This work, one of Bach's last – written when he was nearly completely blind – was mostly assembled from several earlier compositions; in a sense, it serves as his last will and testament regarding writing for voices and orchestra. The choral forces used in performances range from small villages of three hundred or more all the way down to one-voice-per-part, as first presented in our era in a classic recording directed by Joshua Rifkin that is still available from Amazon and other sources.* The VAE chorus of thirty-four was perfect, especially for the treacherous Duke Chapel acoustics: the ensemble was light and nimble enough for busy, complex contrapuntal passages, yet there was enough power in reserve to turn up the amp to eleven when needed. The chamber-size orchestra was made up of some of the finest instrumentalists from across the state, many of whom are current members of the North Carolina Symphony. With all of this in place, what was not to like? The answer, of course, is nothing at all.
Back in 2005, Maestro Wynkoop led a performance of this work with his larger chorus, the Choral Society of Durham. At that time it was a revelation, and the VAE's rendition, in many respects even more refined, brought some portions of that earlier reading to mind. One such section was the very beginning, in which the tone is set for the entire evening. In 2005, I wrote, "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 the Mass of approximately two hours and 15 minutes, the first four measures are as breathtaking and profound as anything that is to come." Then and again now, the chorus delivered "a forceful proclamation" and the orchestra followed with music that, since it was set to paper, is as majestic as anything Bach wrote. As the work unfolded, the VAE's sectional strengths and the always-expected precise attacks, shaded dynamics, and spot-on intonation demonstrated once again the outstanding preparation and leadership provided by Wynkoop and the discipline he routinely achieves. (The complete review of that earlier performance is at http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=3545.)
All of the soloists emerged from within the chorus, took their place(s) next to the conductor, and returned to the ensemble when they were done. This gave solo opportunities to many of the elite singers in the VAE and at the same time avoided what I consider the practice of having four "star" soloists sitting and staring at the audience for over two hours. In the "Christe eleison" section of the "Kyrie," soprano soloist Kristen Blackman and alto Erica Dunkle were heard to particular advantage in complex music that was precisely delivered with apparent ease.
Solos were not just the province of the singers, as the entire evening was filled with instrumental spotlights of perhaps some of the greatest parts ever written by Bach for orchestral players. Oboist Michael Schultz and flutist Rebecca Troxler had several opportunities to shine and provided mesmerizing technique and sensitivity each time. Vocal and instrumental soloists share the stage in the "Laudamus Te" of the "Gloria" section; this time, soprano Elizabeth Terry and concertmistress Rebekah Binford did the honors, providing a joyous and spirited partnership that was a particular highlight of the concert, but in fact all the soloists gave performances that would have been lauded and welcomed on any world stage. Time does not permit naming each one, but I was particularly impressed by the power and maturity of bass Lewis Moore in "Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum" and – again – Erica Dunkle (the only singer who had two solos), who sang the exquisite "Agnus Dei" aria right before the moving final chorus.
It is pointless to dwell on the oft-repeated complaints about the unearthly reverb of Duke Chapel, but it is worth noting Wynkoop's intimate knowledge of this challenge and his unique skill of at least taming it a bit. Much of his conducting time was spent in adjusting dynamics – and singers and instrumentalists responded immediately – to carve out balances that were as good as can be achieved in that particular space. I was also immensely pleased to hear a performance where, for the most part, the use of excessive vibrato was left at home. Finally, I must point out the impeccable and brilliant playing of the continuo team of organist Jane Lynch and cellist Elizabeth Beilman. Continuo players, often overlooked, are the equivalent of linemen to the featured running-back soloists. Lynch and Beilman consistently played with tight rhythmic drive and beautiful tone, and in the process they provided a reliable foundation for the score's massive and awe-inspiring architecture.
*Rifkin didn't lead the Mass in the Triangle, but his original-instruments and small vocal ensemble performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Chapel Hill is still remembered by long-time concert attendees here.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review appeared briefly at this site on June 15-16.