J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor is an Everest of the choral repertoire, but one that far fewer choirs are attempting these days. Tastes in choral music are changing, and you can go years without finding a live performance of the Mass to experience.
That is one reason why Friday evening’s performance at the inaugural Bach Roots Festival was so warmly welcome. Another was the high quality of the music making.
Bach Roots has sprouted from the Oratory Bach Ensemble, a project initiated by artistic director Matthew Olson five years ago to perform Bach’s sacred cantatas in their original ecclesiastical setting.
The expertise accrued in that period was vividly apparent in Friday’s fervently communicative concert at the Summit Center, where artist Robyn Sand Anderson’s Bach-inspired paintings flanked the platform.
The opening Kyrie had a grave, implacable tread to it, Bach’s interleaving vocal lines patiently etched as they developed their hypnotic patterns.
Bach Roots aims to recruit locally, and its festival chorus of 29 members were all Minnesota-based singers. Olson achieved excellent balances among the four voice parts, and the choir’s vigor and confidence were unflagging through a long evening.
As Bach himself would probably have expected, Olson drew his soloists from the choir. No fewer than 10 singers had solo spots, continually providing new points of focus for the audience.
Among these was the stentorian baritone Justin Staebell, whose resonant account of the “Quoniam” was complemented by the airborne horn playing of Matt Wilson. Mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski provided another standout moment in the “Agnus Dei,” her poise and introspection an ideal vehicle for this deeply soul-searching music.
Bach’s orchestral writing in the B minor Mass makes a crucial contribution to the musical textures, and here too there were significant solo contributions.
Concertmaster Kayla Moffett spun a dizzy mesh of violin elaborations around the already florid writing for soprano Linh Kauffman in the “Laudamus te” movement.
The lyrical soloing of flutist SungAe Song graced the “Domine Deus,” counterpointed by the elegant pizzicato punctuations of double bassist Sara Thompson.
And in those ecstatic moments when Bach unleashes his three-strong trumpet section, Bach Roots had luxury casting in Lynn Erickson, Jonathan Brandt and Takako Senn. Their radiant playing of Bach’s difficult high trumpet parts took key moments of the Mass to a different level, not least in the magnificent peroration of the concluding “Dona nobis pacem.”
But in the end the B minor Mass stands or falls with its choir. This one stood tall across the wide range of expression that the Mass encompasses, from the hushed, aching harmonies of the mournful “Crucifixus” to the blazing splendor of the “Sanctus.”
Occasionally conductor Olson’s tempos seemed a touch leisurely, underplaying the dance rhythms that underpin so much of Bach’s music.
But his devotion to Bach infused the performance, and was a major statement of artistic intent as the Bach Roots Festival moves forward to its second season in 2020.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.