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S.F. Bach Choir’s Spirited Mass in B Minor Verges on the Magnificent

May 17, 2016

San Francisco Bach Choir

 

Tackling Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a bold and ambitious undertaking for any ensemble, but when a community choir like the San Francisco Bach Choir sinks its teeth into this magnum opus, you can only stand back in awe and admiration for the efforts of the choir members, the vocal soloists, the accompanying orchestra, and above all, for the artistry and inspiration of SFBC’s artistic and music director, Dr. Magen Solomon. She has fostered a lot of progress in the two years since she assumed leadership of the now 80-year old institution — the oldest continuing community choir in the western United States.

Saturday evening’s performance at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church made abundantly clear that Solomon’s approach and guidance have substantially improved the sound quality of the choir. This was especially noticeable in the middle voices of the group; the altos and tenors greatly contributed to the overall sound of the chorus, which is velvety, transparent, well balanced, clearly defined, and wonderfully homogeneous.

Not quite as consistent and well balanced was the group of vocal soloists (Mary Ellen Callahan and Rita Lilly, sopranos; Heidi Waterman, mezzo-soprano; Brian Thorsett, tenor; and Yannick Lambrecht, bass-baritone), but each of them found a moment to shine, especially Callahan in Laudamus te, Lambrecht in Quoniam to solus sanctus, and Thorsett in the Benedictus.

With more than 70 singers, the SF Bach Choir is a large entity, which sets certain limits on agility and responsiveness. Solomon and her singers managed to navigate the fine line between possible tempo and desired musical expression very well, although I found some of the choruses in this B Minor Mass - the opening and closing choruses (Kyrie Eleison and Dona Nobis Pacem) in particular — overly solemn and lacking a sense of urgency and celebratory cheer.

But the Bach Choir delivered where it counts. The Gloria was very festive, with a cheerful Gratias agimus, and a strong and lively Cum Sancto Spiritu. And the dramatic juxtaposition of the Crucifixus with its ever descending melody, and the ecstatic jubilation of the Et resurrexit was simply magnificent.

The accompanying Jubilate Orchestra (with leader David Wilson) did good work throughout the evening, with excellent trumpets and bassoons and more than adequate solo work from flute, horn, and oboe d’amore.

In her introductory notes in the program, Solomon stated that Bach’s B Minor Mass, for various reasons, is a very personal piece for her, and that it has been a joy to explore the work with the ensemble for the first time. The record shows that the SFBC revisits the piece every four or five years.

Given the development of the choir since the start of her tenure, I am already looking forward to the next time. 

Correction: The original article incorrectly identified Rita Lilly as the soloist in Laudamus te. It has been corrected to Mary Ellen Callahan.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.

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