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Inspiring Journey Through the B-Minor Mass

April 24, 2007

J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor of 1747-49 (BWV 232) is a curious creature. This late vocal masterpiece was conceived as a series of independent Mass sections, rather than as a unified whole. Bach wrote its component parts over the course of some two decades, in widely divergent circumstances and for various audiences. Owing to this hybrid heritage, the piece contains a multiplicity of musical styles — everything from traditional fugue and counterpoint to more startling chromaticism and stark homophony.

Netherlands Bach Society

Effectively negotiating these shifting textures in performance poses a significant challenge. The Netherlands Bach Society, under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven, met this challenge splendidly on Saturday in a Cal Performances concert at Berkeley's First Congregational Church. Rarely do you hear Bach performed with the energy and excitement that Veldhoven and company provided as they took the audience on an exhilarating journey through some of the composer's most intriguing vocal music.

Kudos for this achievement must begin at the top, with Veldhoven's interpretation, which was both boldly expressive and effortlessly relaxed. His conducting style seemed curious at first glance, punctuated by slow-motion, underhanded gestures that conveyed the impression of pulling taffy. What he, in fact, elicited were melodic lines of impeccable beauty that rose and fell in a series of undulating waves. His ability to create captivating drama, while avoiding melodrama or tedium, was perhaps the most outstanding achievement of an evening full of high moments.
Impressive Solo Performances
Laurels should also be given to all six solo singers, some of whom are only now launching their careers. Each displayed flawless execution and impressive vocal command. Two last-minute substitutions on the program acquitted themselves marvelously: soprano Catherine Webster, who performed several solo arias with sparkling, lithe beauty, and Marieke Steenhoek, who blended perfectly into the ensemble group of soloists.

Soprano Johannette Zomer especially distinguished herself with compelling stage presence, while Matthew White's gorgeous, pure countertenor resounded like a clarion call during his solo arias. The honey-sweet tone quality of tenor Charles Daniels and the rich, refined sound of bass Peter Harvey completed the group.

An impression of opulence characterized the Kyrie, with the movement's opening text being declaimed with regal nobility by the impressively blended and balanced 10-member chorus. With equal grace, a top-notch orchestra supported the chorus. Veldhoven's distribution of instrumental forces, made up of a smallish string section and a much larger contingent of winds and brass, reaped prodigious benefits in terms of orchestral color, as the heterogeneous sonorities intermingled to form a resplendent panoply of sound. Amid this display, Webster and Zomer imbued the vivacious duet "Christe eleison" (Christ have mercy) with well-matched phrasing and finely blended tone.

Exquisite reflections of textual meaning characterized the Gloria, starting with a series of exuberant, soaring melodies on "Gloria in excelsis deo" (Glory to God in the highest). The ensuing ensemble section "Gratias agimus tibi" (We give thee thanks) was particularly effective, its succession of sweeping, grandiose melodic entrances a stirring expression of profound thanks to God. Later, the ensemble accentuated the profound sense of sorrow in "Qui tollis peccata mundi" (Thou that taketh away the sins of the world) with driving yet refined energy, gently pushing forward the melodic line.
Music Shot Through With Compelling Drama
Solo highlights included Zomer's joyful and agile presentation of "Laudamus te" (We praise thee), Daniels' and Webster's charming, graceful duet "Domine Deus" (O Lord God), and the jaunty "Quoniam tu solus Sanctus" (For thou only art holy), in which Harvey's agile bass commingled with boisterous bassoon and horn countermelodies to create an inimitably colorful impression.

Slow, steady statements of the opening Credo text established a dignified atmosphere, which quickly yielded to sections of more vigorous counterpoint. Here the ensemble masterfully accentuated several moments of compelling drama. The "Et incarnatus est" (And was incarnate) is perhaps the most striking moment of chordal writing in the entire Mass, the hushed vocal lines having been set against a haunting countermelody in the strings.

The choral effect was especially powerful here and in the ensuing "Crucifixus" (He was crucified), where plangent dissonant harmonies and a gloomy, chromatically descending bass line underscore the sobering memory of Christ's crucifixion. Equally effective was the sudden ebullience of "Et resurrexit" (And he rose again), in which choir and orchestra seemed to dance together in merry celebration of Christ's resurrection.

Further displays of admirable dexterity emerged in the Sanctus, from the movement's lilting opening strains to the vivacious fugal counterpoint of "Pleni sunt coeli et terra" (Heaven and earth are full). This, in turn, yielded to the delicately flowing Benedictus, in which Daniels' silken tenor dovetailed beautifully with Marten Root's pure, sinewy flute lines.

The Agnus Dei brought a return to high drama, most notably featuring White's soaring countertenor in a plaintive cry for mercy. The arresting final chorus on "Dona nobis pacem" (Grant us peace), with its steadily rising melodic lines and soaring trumpet fanfares, was an inspirational finale to this glorious performance.

 

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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