A great performance of a great masterwork: Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Music director Jane Glover conducts Music of the Baroque. (Photo by Elliot Mandel)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Music of the Baroque kicked off its 2019–20 season on Saturday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. A good-sized crowd assembled to hear music director Jane Glover lead the orchestra, chorus, and four soloists in one of the towering baroque classics: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

One of the greatest works by one of classical music’s greatest composers, the B Minor Mass is both majestic and mysterious. It is majestic in its complexity and sweep, as well as its use of various styles and quotations from music written throughout the composer’s career. It is mysterious because no one knows why this Lutheran composer ever choose to compose a Catholic mass in the first place, and why, once composed, it was never performed in its entirety (and its final form) until several decades after Bach’s death. (Some sources maintain it was over a century before the first complete performance.) It was finished a year before Bach’s death in 1750.

Music of the Baroque employed four splendid singers as soloists: soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Jonas Hacker, and baritone Tyler Duncan.

The result was technically tight, musically springy, and emotionally powerful.

Glover, who conducted her large forces without use of a podium, was herself widely expressive throughout. She was dressed simply in black: a loose blouse over slim trousers with simple shoes. She had large movements and wide gestures and was often as animated as the music.

This work highlights the human voice and Music of the Baroque did not disappoint. The chorus, prepared by guest chorus director Andrew Megill, was never less than absolutely solid and at their best they were simply glorious.

The choral balance was generally quite good, this made somewhat tricky because Bach wrote the choruses for different configurations: SATB, SSATB, and SSAATB (that is, four-part chorus, five-part, and six-part). This was all managed with a 34-member group, thus displaying their versatility.

The chorus, the heart of Bach’s mass, navigated the wide-ranging music with grace and agility, and brought excitement to the counterpoint.

The soloists were well chosen. Soprano Yulia Van Doren sang with admirable clarity. Her top notes had delicate bloom and good shine, and she had gentle and nuanced expressiveness that brought the text to life.

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó was an effective communicator, with a pleasing smokiness of sound. In her Gloria section solo, her entreaties to God were convincing, yet simple and earnest. She combined beautifully with Van Doren in the Credo duet, the pair creating effective counter play of the two voices. Szabó was deeply moving in the “Agnus Dei” solo.

Jonas Hacker had an unforced, easy tenor. He was particularly effective in his solo outing in the “Benedictus,” masterfully highlighting the text. He and Van Doren worked well together in the “Domine Deus” duet, both creating plaintive and pleasing music.

The bass soloist Tyler Duncan had a natural approach to uniting words and music with just the right amount of beefiness for his Gloria section solo. “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” found him singing brightly and with good polish.

The orchestra unfailingly offered admirable support to the singers.

There were many lovely instances where individual players joined the soloists as an effective additional voice. Mary Stolper’s flute was pretty and had just the right amount of airiness. Anne Bach honored the composer whose name she shares with creamy, haunting oboe sound. Principals Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer provided gleaming trumpets. Douglas Waddell’s timpani contributed majestic emphasis. There was bouncy sound from the bassoons, and the strings provided heavenly legato.

Glover presided over a performance that moved seamlessly from big choruses to quiet solos, marshaling her forces with both care and flair.

Insights into the great Mass in B Minor were provided in thoughtful and detailed program notes written by Jennifer More.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Elliott Golub (1934–2019), who served as the ensemble’s concertmaster from 1972 (when Music of the Baroque was founded by the multi-talented Hyde Parker Thomas S. Wikman, now conductor laureate) until his retirement in 2006. The brief note under the wonderfully chosen program photograph of this great violinist reported that he particularly adored the Mass in B Minor.

Music of the Baroque has a big season in store. Their next concert features music by Haydn, Handel, and Rameau and is entitled “The Chase.” It takes place Sun., Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the North Shore Center and Tues., Oct., 22 at 8 p.m. at the Harris Theater. Nicholas Kraemer will conduct musical works highlighting the world of the hunt.

Kraemer returns to conduct “Bach and the Italians” which will showcase some of the group’s principal players on Nov. 24 and 25. The program includes works by Bach, Vivaldi, and Marcello.

Music of the Baroque will offer four performances of a holiday brass and choral concert (described as “an untraditional holiday tradition”) from Dec. 19 to 22, at three different venues. Guest conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley, founder and artistic director of Seraphic Fire, will lead a concert of joyful carols, solemn chant, and jubilant works for brass.

For more information on these concerts and the entire Music of the Baroque season, visit baroque.org.