The Continuo Online: “Mass in b minor, by J.S. Bach, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, May 11 & 12, 2013”

Review published in The Continuo Online, an electronic journal published by the Jackson, MS, Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

When asked to review the recent performance of J. S. Bach’s magnificent “Mass in b minor” performed at the St. Philips Episcopal Church on May 11 & 12, I agreed because I knew I could say some very complimentary things. My reaction to the performance heard on Saturday afternoon was thinking to myself shortly after the initial tutti “Kyrie” beginning, and again saying to friends at intermission (and since) “it’s remarkable.”

But I must begin this review with an apologia. My experiences with what must be considered one of the nonpareil works of Western music are: a) hearing the Robert Shaw Chorale on tour during my college days (memorable because the first trumpeter was missing many of the perilous pitches, distracting from an otherwise superior listening experience, b) some study with recordings and score at hand, and c) a paramount performance a year ago while in St. Louis with the SLO and Symphony Chorus, and with nationally known soloists (and there, the first trumpeter had an assistant to provide embouchure relief). I have never had the pleasure of singing or conducting the masterpiece.

Fortunately, I am provided with the enlightening program notes written by scholar and St. Philip’s singer, Max Garriott. His erudite article begins, “The idea of assembling a compendium of musical compositions constituting the Ordinary of the Latin mass coalesced in Bach’s mind only in his last years, its realization seeming to have grown out of inner needs alone.” And now, inspired and clear of conscience, my review of a “remarkable” performance.

It is difficult to imagine what foresight and motivation St. Philip’s long time Organist/choirmaster must have provided encouraging his volunteer singers (complemented with just a few more-professional voices) to prepare such a demanding piece of choral-orchestral music. David O’Steen must be congratulated for presenting this work to his community in celebration of the church’s 50th anniversary. This great massive mass setting and a small parish choir is an anomaly of sorts. And they sang remarkably well!

The “just-the-right-sized” orchestra was composed of Mississippi Symphony Orchestra professionals, balancing in volume of sound the choral and vocal solo forces perfectly. Especially, I note the nimble obbligato playing of violinist, Marta Szlubowska and facile flutist, Sybil Cheesman. Darcie Bishop’s piccolo trumpet was impeccably flawless (No doubt, Maestro Shaw was appreciatively sitting up in his grave!), and Mr. O’Steen’s organ continuo realization was inaudible as it should be. Intonation between organ, instruments and voices was remarkable.

The guest vocal soloists were well chosen, Anastasia Talley and Tessika McClendon, impressive graduate student sopranos, Jordon Hammons, a pleasing young tenor, and the masterful and remarkable James Martin, baritone. My ears were especially gratified by the very rich and expressive mezzo soprano singing of Sarah Mabary.

I have one lurking criticism. Is it inherent in Bach’s setting or is it the choir getting tired after more than an hour of heavy singing? Or, am I tiring of listening to heavy music? After the hugely intense Bach setting, the last two choruses of the Credo, “Confiteor unum baptisma” and “Et expecta resurrectionem” etc. are a “let down.” I found this true as well while hearing the St. Louis performance (even with full orchestra and one hundred singers). Mr. Garriott leads me to believe it is my ignorance for not appreciating Bach’s symbolic approach to musical structure: for example, “… archaic use of plainchant over ‘walking’ bass-lines forcefully implies the march of faith through the ages.” However, this listener was quickly awakened by the glorious “Sanctus” which follows. To fully appreciate Bach’s music one must know as much as possible about the abundance of symbolism he employs to share his rich emotional knowledge of theology. I have much to learn.

Guest conductor, Dr. Leslie Poss must not be overlooked. Living and working in Tuscaloosa, she commuted enough times to provide the leadership necessary to bring all of the forces together and make great music in the benevolent acoustics of St. Philip’s church. I was impressed by her understanding of the work, her clear conducting skills and interpretations of tempi, dynamics, and the balancing of the large forces in front of her. Dr. Poss and Mr. O’Steen, appropriatedly shared the audience’s applause at the end for their leadership.

How could I forget! I do have one more experience with the b minor; singing the final “Dona Nobis Pacem” with Robert Shaw conducting, along with 1,500 other choral directors at the close of an American Choral Directors Conference in Nashville. Then, just as in the remarkable performance at St. Phillips, I was all choked up.

D. Royce Boyer, D.M.A.
29 May 2013

Read the letter on The Continuo Online site.

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