The Choral Arts Society of Washington offered variety in their performance of Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.”
By Patrick D. McCoy
In the age of historic performance practice and musical period recreation, there is somewhat of a risk in performing a work like Bach’s ‘Mass in B minor’ in the concert hall setting such as The Kennedy Center. The large chorus of singers of The Choral Arts Society of Washington and modern orchestra led by Scott Tucker did just that, striking a balance between period expectations and modern tastes. The tempos for each movement seemed to move along at a brisk piece bringing a feeling of lightness to a work that, by construction, is heavy. But at the same time, there were moments that the listener wanted the sound to linger a bit longer, such as in the expansive opening ‘Kyrie’ and in the majestic ‘Sanctus.’ The singers of Choral Arts responded to Tucker at each entrance and sang with crisp diction. This was especially noticeable in the ‘Kyrie,’ which was sung with a sense of weight on the first syllable, accentuated with slight separation.
In this performance, the vocal soloists were used in a unique fashion bringing contrast to the large chorus. Not only were the soloists featured in their respective arias, but they also sang initial entrances of select choruses of the Mass one soloist to a part. Initially, the cohesion of the soloists in the ensemble was not readily felt, but as the performance warmed, the cast of soloists were in their shining glory, particularly in the bravura passages of the jubilant ‘Gloria.’ The brass and timpani added to the triumphant singing of the chorus in this movement. Several vocal chestnuts abounded from the guest artists in their solo arias. The famously sung ‘Laudamus te’ was a true test of virtuosity for the always vocally reliable soprano Rosa Lamoreaux. The tempo seemed to start at a fiendishly quick pace, yet the soprano tossed off the coloratura like another day’s work, championing each musical phrase. The concert mistress mastered the violin obbligato beautifully, but failed to create a sense of a duet with her vocal partner.
Countertenor Daniel Taylor almost instinctively knew the capacity of his voice in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Taylor’s opening delivery of the ‘Agnus Dei’ was one of warmth and silvery clarity that reached into the core of the performance space. This was similarly felt in his aria ‘Qui tollis’ in which the voice was a natural fit – never forced but a natural presence always residing elegantly in Bach’s music. Soprano Madeline Apple Healey and tenor Thomas Cooley blended beautifully together in the duet ‘Domine Deus’ with their voices intertwining together to form the finest of musical garment. Bass Michael Dean sang with regal strength in ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ (for you alone are the Holy One) and performed well-noted ornaments on the recapitulation of the aria’s beginning section. But in a work like the B Minor Mass, it is all about the chorus. The vocal writing for the chorus is just as demanding as the stand alone arias for the soloists, which was most evident in the ‘Et expecto’ as the soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections of the chorus tossed off the quick, dazzling choral notes of Bach with palpable ease. Culminating this movement was the glorious ‘Amen Chorus’ which provided the perfect springboard into the ‘Sanctus.’
With a large work like this, there were numerous opportunities for the chorus to showcase contrast. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ was one of those moments that held the audience like reverent worshippers in the hall. The voices floated above the pulsating strings, creating a sense of urgency. In the ‘Confiteor,’ the solemn, chorale-like passages provided a remarkable musical tension that prepared the audience for the vocal fireworks of the ‘Et resurrexit.’ Crowning the presentation was the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ as an expanded recap of the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ heard in the beginning. The Choral Arts Society of Washington sure knows how to kick off a 50th anniversary season with a performance of one of the greatest choral works of all time. Tucker continues the musical legacy of his predecessor Norman Scribner with such integrity. We are looking forward to more music as the holidays approach.
Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanities, Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and a M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. , where he serves on the alumni board of directors. He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price. McCoy has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our time, including Renée Fleming, Joshua Bell, Martina Arroyo, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. He is music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, DC. Listen to these interviews and others at Blog Talk Radio. Additionally, he is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America. McCoy may be reached via email at email@example.com and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.