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Zesty Little Masterpieces From S.F. Bach Choir

March 20, 2010

San Francisco Bach Choir

For its 74th season, Director Corey Jamason and the San Francisco Bach Choir and Baroque Orchestra programmed five highly unusual Bach compositions for their Sunday program in Calvary Presbyterian Church. The sizable audience ate it all up with gusto.

The afternoon opened with the Kyrie in F Major, BWV 233a, followed by the Missa Brevis No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 235, and the Sanctus in D Major, BWV 238. Following intermission, we heard the Cantata No. 98, Was Gott tut, das ist woblgetan, BWV 98, and the Missa Brevis No. 4 in G Major, BWV 236. Soloists were soprano Erica Schuller, mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon, tenor Brian Thorsett, and bass-baritone Kittinant Chinsamran.

Bach’s Missa Brevis, also known as his Lutheran Masses, set only the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the five-part standard Catholic Mass. They were written for special feast day services of his Lutheran churches, though he set them in their original Latin texts. After all, most educated people in Bach’s day knew basic Latin.

Bach’s Short Masses, however, were not composed from scratch but rather assembled from movements drawn from his various cantatas — a neat trick. Fitting them into the prosody of Latin from their original German could not have been a piece of cake.

Each of the Brief Masses opens with a choral fugue setting of the Kyrie and another for the first stanza of the Latin text. The following three stanzas are set as arias or recitatives, with the final “Cum Santo Spiritu” given over to another choral fugue. Bach loved multiple forms, so the finale chorus of the G-Major Mass is set as an introduction and allegro, a terse introduction in choral style, followed by a zesty fugue. It makes a great ending for any program.

Seldom-Done Gems The curious thing is that these little masterpieces are rarely, if ever, performed or recorded. Indeed, I’ve never before encountered a live performance of any among Sunday’s five compositions.

Cantata No. 98 opens with a choral movement followed by a pair of recitatives, each tied to an aria. It’s one of the shorter ones, running about a quarter hour. Tenor Thorsett delivered a richly expressive and warmly sung first recitative, followed by soprano Schuller’s aria, forcing her volume at times into a chirp. She was much better in the duet with alto Growdon during the G-Major Mass.

Bass-baritone Chinsamran delivered the most consistently excellent performances of the four soloists. His is a large voice that didn’t need any forcing. Along the way, he produced gusts of beautiful timbre, especially during the final aria of the cantata and the “Gratias” aria in the G-Major Mass.

Of the other two compositions, the D-Major Sanctus was composed to open a Christmas service, and it twinkles like an evening star. As for the opening Kyrie, I found it pleasantly plodding, but no more than that. Not every note of a master is necessarily masterful.

This Bach Choir — there are others around here — is large, earnest, and well-tailored to fit the music. Director Jamason clearly knows the field and all the finesse it requires. The choir is composed of volunteers, not professionals, who participate for the love of Bach’s music and the joy of singing it. If the results sound a little homemade, that’s all right by me.

After all, it lends a certain authenticity to their performances. I doubt that Bach heard any better, since he had precious few professionals at his disposal and even less rehearsal time to prepare performances.

The Baroque “Orchestra” was in fact a nonet — five strings, two oboes, a bassoon, and a small portative organ — which is as it should be. Anyway, such instrumentation was principally geared to underline the 17th-century style of vocal intonation, so full orchestras would only blur the importance of the texts.

Like so many performing organizations these days, the S.F. Bach Choir is faced with financial difficulties. It was announced from the stage that it’s holding a raffle to raise $15,000 to fulfill a matching grant. When accomplished, that would bring in “a badly needed $30,000.” Without that, there might not be a 75th season.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.