Bach and religion: What a combination!

Choral Arts: Bach's B-minor Mass (2nd review)

7 minute read
Heimes: Like the heroines of my youth.
Heimes: Like the heroines of my youth.
Who is the greatest composer?

The fun of debating this, and questions like it (Who's the greatest ball player? What's Philadelphia's finest restaurant?) is inexhaustible. But we all know that such questions can't really be answered. But put the question a bit differently: Which composer do you value above all others? Which composer's music would you miss the most? The answer, for me, is a no-brainer: Johann Sebastian Bach.

To be sure, Bach's music can, on occasion, be as brilliant as Mozart's, as awesome as Beethoven's, as lyrical as Schubert's, as chromatic as Wagner's"“ but I don't believe that's the reason Pablo Casals started every day with some Bach.

For me, Bach's music is the musical equivalent of the best bread I've ever had"“ think of the chewy crust of a Metropolitan Bakery olive roll"“ plain and straightforward but perennially satisfying and nourishing. I've never had a more pleasurable or more spiritually gratifying musical experience than I did a few years ago when, as a member of the University of Pennsylvania Choral Society, I rehearsed and performed Bach's Mass in B-minor.

So you can imagine my anticipation as I sat in the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia on Saturday, awaiting a performance of the Mass by the Bach Festival Overture and the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia.

Several mountains to climb

There is a myriad of barriers to a successful performance of the B-minor Mass. Its music taxes the abilities of everybody involved: five solo singers; an accomplished orchestra with most of its first chairs capable of virtuoso solos; a chorus that must be comprised of at least some professional singers; a conductor who must somehow conquer the work's intractable problems of historical accuracy, stylistic appropriateness, balance and tempo; and listeners who more often than not are subjected to unforgiving chairs in an unsatisfactory acoustic setting, even though they were willing to take the risk that the majority of these problems might not be conquered. The B-minor Mass has the potential to be a long two hours.

On this occasion, however, the large audience"“ an audience so eager to hear this transcendent music that they began applauding as the chorus filed in and continued practically until the music began"“ was rewarded with comfortable seats and perfect acoustics, a setting in which they could sit back and enjoy one of those performances that can be a treasured memory for a lifetime.

More big voices needed

To be sure, this rendition of the Mass, like all performances of the work, was not without its shortcomings. Let's get them out of the way first.

One or two trained singers embedded in an amateur group like the Choral Arts Society can make their sections glow from the inside; in this performance, the sopranos and altos had that glow, but the tenors and, especially, the basses did not. In the concert's printed program, asterisks indicated "Professional Core Singers" in each group, and, while I'm confident that those so marked in the bass and tenor sections are wonderful musicians, the group is, to put it simply, in need of a few more really big male voices.

Also, even though the chorus sang with impeccable precision of pronunciation and intonation throughout, and even though they were quite capable of handling the breakneck tempos often demanded of them by their conductor (and the group's artistic director) Matthew Glandorf, the consistent lack of eye contact between chorus and conductor"“ both had their heads in the music much of the time"“ was a visual distraction for me throughout the performance.

A Model T or a Porsche?

Then there's the matter of authentic period instruments. Glandorf, in his intensely personal and compelling program notes, wrote:

"Some make the argument that if Bach or Mozart or Beethoven heard the modern violin, horn, oboe, Steinway, etc., they would prefer it. …" and went on to discuss this complicated issue in some detail.

I've never been very enthusiastic about historical accuracy in performance for its own sake. There's no doubt in my mind that if Beethoven, teleported to our time with his hearing restored, were to hear a modern concert grand, he'd say, "Yeah, damn! That's what I meant!" And Bach, in his musical imagination, surely yearned for the power of trumpets that didn't yet exist, a power that their Baroque ancestors simply cannot produce.

Would you rather drive a Model-T or a Porsche?

In this performance, though, Glandorf's use of Baroque instruments made me a believer, at least for the afternoon. First of all, I love the silvery sound of Baroque gut-string violins. What's more, all the instrumental solos were played so beautifully and seemed so aptly suited to Bach's music that in the end there was really nothing left to argue about.

Two who stole the show

But the glory of this concert was the vocal soloists. I blush to say that, even though I knew she's a superstar, I'd never heard soprano Julianne Baird perform. While it was well worth the wait to finally hear her, I must be honest and report that the other soprano soloist Laura Heimes and countertenor Ian Howell stole the show.

Heimes's intense, focused lyric soprano voice reminds me of one of the musical heroines of my youth, the formidably intelligent Phyllis Curtin. And I urge you to follow the link to Howell's website and listen to what you will find there.

As breathtaking as his voice is in that example, Howell's stage presence is overpowering in a way that eludes description"“ although I'll try anyway. Imagine a gun-slinger coming into an Old West saloon and looking you directly in the eyes"“ but imagine that he's being played by Johnny Depp, with just the hint of a smile and a look that penetrates to your very soul. That's something like what comes to my mind when I call up the image of Howell in the moments before his solos. And he backs it up with his singing.

As Howell started his final "Agnus Dei" solo, it struck me that he and Heimes were the individual personifications of this concert's greatest virtues. This was a performance of the Bach B-minor Mass in which there were simply no failures of ensemble or intonation, an incredible achievement in itself. But in the end, I'll remember the sensual intimacy of this music, two hours of sublime chamber music, more than I'll recall the virtuosity of its performers. In his ardor to express the divine, Bach wrote music that is as sensuous and erotic as anything in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

A Mass for atheists?

I'm ethnically Jewish and somewhere between agnostic and Buddhist in my religious beliefs. I attended this concert with my friend Phil, an unequivocally atheistic Jew who has sat next to me in the bass section of the Penn Chorus every Monday night since 1977.

Phil, as he's prone to do when listening to Mozart and Bach, began weeping about five seconds after the performance began and never stopped. As we left the church and started our walks home to our wives on this beautiful May evening— two Jews who've never thought it strange to have, over 30-odd years, devoted months and months of their lives to rehearsing various settings of the Roman Catholic Mass— Phil, drying his eyes, said it all: "I'm grateful to live in a universe where religion makes people write music like this." â—†

To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.
To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Choral Arts Society: Bach, Mass in B Minor. Julianne Baird, Laura Heimes, sopranos; Ian Howell, countertenor; Tony Boutte, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone. Matthew Glandorf, conductor. May 9, 2009 at First Baptist Church, 17th and Sansom St. (215) 240-6417 or

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