Portland Baroque Orchestra & Trinity Cathedral Choir review: wise compromises

Performance of J.S. Bach’s immortal Mass in b minor deftly balanced historical authenticity with practical necessity

By BRUCE BROWNE

There are a few works of art whose merit is not debatable. J.S. Bach’s b minor Mass is one of these.

Yet this masterpiece is rarely performed as its composer probably intended. Various factors — choice of venue, availability of historically accurate performers and instruments, etc. — often require today’s performers to make compromises between original intention and modern practicality. Armed with best practices, conscientious performers pursue historically informed performance, not re-enactments. We then must concede the possibility of resolving difficulties of balance, nuance and tempi.

Under the lucid leadership of distinguished British conductor David Hill last weekend, the combined forces of the Trinity Cathedral Choir, the Portland Baroque Orchestra and five excellent soloists made the right choices. (See my interview with Mr. Hill below.) The value of this performance in the Trinity Music series – to singers, audience, the preservation of the choral arts and to the glory of God through music – was manifold.

Trinity Cathedral Choir and Portland Baroque Orchestra performed J.S. Bach’s ‘Mass in b Minor.’ Photo: Howard Luce.

The arias and duets were something special. Mr. Hill had at his disposal a stellar counter tenor, Daniel Moody; stentorian baritone Jesse Blumberg; the jewel-voiced local soprano Arwen Myers; German-born tenor Nils Neubert; and versatile soprano Estelí Gomez. Each of these singers carries a lengthy resumé of wide-ranging credentials, nationally and internationally.

In the aria “Quoniuam tu solus sanctus” (For you alone are holy), Mr. Blumberg was fulsome in tone, his voice cutting through the cathedral with well honed vowels. His principal Quoniam partner, horn player Andrew Clark, was quite simply the best I’ve heard in this piece, playing his part flawlessly, and without score.

Countertenor Moody possesses a refulgent tone, and was irresistible in his aria “Qui Sedes ad dexteram Patris” (You who sit at the right hand of the Father). This is a major talent; I was grateful that a real countertenor (as opposed to female alto) was Hill’s choice. More about that in a bit.

Ms. Myers sang with a sterling silver patina throughout, especially effective in the duets “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy), with Ms. Gomez, and later “Domine Deus” (Lord God, King of Heaven) with Mr. Neubert. The latter pair were well matched, along with flutist Janet See, in phrasing and articulation. Mr. Neubert was also effective in the penultimate aria, “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). In the “Laudamus te” (We praise you) Ms. Gomez confronted the challenges of matching the sparkling crisp 32nd-note duplets and runs in the violin, played expertly by Carla Moore.

The choir was well prepared by Mr. Neswick, who also provided accessible and thoughtful program notes. A bit large-ish (just over 70 voices), the choir was able to respond to Mr. Hill’s interpretation; blend and color were striking, especially in the tenor and soprano. The bass section, though, could not always cut through the hall, particularly in the full polyphonic passages.

Finding the Balance

Trinity Cathedral is a choice venue for choral, organ and small- to medium-sized choral works. This is a welcoming congregation and the leadership and Mr. Neswick do much to promote the arts in our community. It is not, however, a real concert hall; it was constructed for worship. And performers must sometimes – nay, often– alter a space and our placement in it, to enable the performance to be best brought to life.

Some of this was done. In the “Quoniam” aria, the bass sang from the lectern, which placed him above the horn and low double reeds. The female soloists, however, were not elevated and their voices were therefore not as present. Perhaps with Trinity’s choir plus 20-some additional professionals, paired with PBO’s period instruments – which are softer than their modern counterparts – the orchestra should have been elevated (or at least the winds). Yes, we have come to the discussion of balance and clarity, which can mean the difference between good and great.

Members of Trinity Cathedral Choir singing Bach’s b minor Mass. Photo: Danny Bronson.

Let’s first get this out of the way: a choir of this size can never achieve the transparency of sound with which Bach worked. That’s because – and this is well documented – Bach worked with a choir of between 16 and 24, some historians say fewer. (Conductor Andrew Parrot’s publication The Essential Bach Choir, Boydell Press, 2000, is suggested reading on this subject.)

Yet in the area of ticks and tocks, there seemed no compromises in this performance. Mr. Hill prefers, as do many contemporary Baroque conductors, tempi which are quite fast. The choir went with him; they rode the wind in places like the “Et resurrexit” which even gave the orchestra some challenges. For example, a brighter “e” ([e in the International Phonetic Alphabet) vowel from all choral parts, particularly the basses, could have helped project the sound more effectively. But quite smartly, Mr. Hill did use concertists (small choir) for some passages and even handed over the folder-gripping choral bass passage in the aforementioned “Et resurrexit” to solo bass Blumberg.

In contrast, in the slow, precious moments “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto” (By the power of the holy spirit he became incarnate) and the profoundly word-painted “Crucifixus,” this choir, orchestra and conductor brought the world to a standstill, suspended for a moment, awaiting the resurrection to come. In the spritely movements, Hill danced on the podium (never to distraction); in the sustained choral moments, his gestures were smooth and expressive.

British composer David Hill led Portland Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Cathedral Choir and soloists in Bach’s b minor Mass.

The performance clocked in at around two hours, not including a generous intermission. This is brisk, but not unusually short. Mr. Hill’s deft pacing, both in and between numbers, accounted in part for this. There were many attaccas and segues that helped to move things forward.

Hill made one other wise refusal to compromise. As mentioned, it was refreshing to hear a countertenor soloist and a pleasure to hear a vocal artist who made it clear why the countertenor should be used. Audiences the world around, let alone in Portland, can stop saying that a “countertenor is a man who sings like a woman.”

While Bach did indicate “alto” in his orchestrations we know that women were not singing in the church during this period (1740s). Today’s finest countertenors are able to make a living applying their craft without having to shift between tenor and countertenor. This is a wonderful nod to Bach’s true intent of sound.

In this performance of Bach’s b minor “Catholic Mass,” choices were made and the result was an amalgam, well thought-through, expertly mounted and worthy of the adoration the work has received over the centuries. Congratulations to all for this crowd-pleasing evening of Bach.

*

Two days before the opening concert last week, I caught up with the perfectly delightful, charming, and best of all, completely knowledgeable David Hill.  I first crossed paths with him when he was organist/choir master at Winchester Cathedral in the U.K. He’s attained a rising career arc since then, working with such auspicious groups as the BBC Singers.

Currently adjunct professor at Yale University School of Music, where he works with grad students in conducting and directs the Schola Cantorum, on the other side of the pond, Hill holds down a couple of other prestigious positions: director of the Bach Choir in London, and associate guest director of the Bournemouth Symphony.

Hill talked at length about Bach, and his masterwork, the b minor Mass. He brought up such diverse performance-related topics as German vowel sounds; the “floating” ‘a’; proper tuning frequencies for performing music composed before the 19th century — e.g. 415 cycles per second up to 430 (Schumann) and up to 465 (Monteverdi). Of course, these are approximations, but, if you mentally “jump” from 415 cps to 465, you’ve traveled over a full step.

We also traversed the landscape of period instruments and the vagaries of singing in Latin, as opined by Harold Copeman, the brilliant linguist and author, who wrote Singing in Latin, the standby for all who wish to know how, say, the words “Agnus Dei” might have sounded in 16th C. France or 17th C. German (hint: not so much like it is in today’s Latin singing).

And as a by-the way – we discussed politics in music – hmmm- never happens in Oregon!

Hill is passionate about all things musical, but never puffed up or ego-driven. Down to earth, but replete with fun facts about early music especially. We ranged over some of his favorite contemporaries, including renowned historically informed conductors Roger Norrington, William Christie, Philippe Herreweghe, and, according. to Mr. Hill, the most forensic of all, John Eliot Gardiner, who digs as deeply as possible into all aspects of performance, particularly in early music.

This week, Mr. Hill is back at Yale, directing the Schumann version (!) of Bach’s St. John Passion. If you haven’t heard Hill’s work, you need to! Listen to any one of the over 70 CDs he’s been involved with over the past couple of decades.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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