mike hettwer

The Ensemble review: Wall of Sound

Performance of Bach's b minor Mass offers ample virtuosity, insufficient vocal variety

by BRUCE BROWNE

Johann Sebastian Bach needs no introduction, but in any performance, his music needs to be carefully reawakened by means of a variety of articulation, dynamic contrasts and deliberate text inflection. More of these elements were needed at The Ensemble of Oregon performance of Bach’s b Minor Mass at First Presbyterian Church last Sunday. Nevertheless, the concert had many tasty moments.

Conductor Patrick McDonough had in place all the necessary elements for a first rate concert: a stellar cast of singers, a first-rate band of instrumentalists and his own considerable talents. The ten voice choir (out of which came the soloists), plus 19 instrumentalists comprised the total of the performance forces.

The choir, however, was often unable to create more than a formidable wall of sound, unrelentingly forte (loud), and with an absence of variety in articulations. Legato singing is a valuable commodity, but legato unrelieved by elements of martellato, staccato, even marcato, is like driving straight through Kansas. You get from point A to point B, but it’s not the most interesting trip.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach's Mass in b minor at Portland's First Presbyterian Church.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach’s Mass in b minor at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Throughout the performance of some 130 minutes, it was not clear what factor disallowed differentiation of vocal lines: the hall itself (an unreverberant space engineered for the speaking, not the singing voice); the small choral forces pitted against the modern winds feeling the need to just sing out; lack of rehearsal time required to fine tune and add nuance. There was an attempt to alter texture through use of “one on a part” voicing in select movements. Perhaps this could have been tried in the strings.

Some choruses, such as the double choir “Sanctus,” were just the right weight and perfect tempo. In comparison, during the following “Hosanna,” the 8th notes of the orchestra tended to obliterate the 16ths of the choir. Generally, the most pleasurable choral moments were heard when only the continuo or a smaller instrumental component were accompanying. One problem with balance in Bach is that oftentimes the instruments are playing colla voce— that is, the very same part as the voices. And modern instruments will always win that contest.

Delightful, however, were the arias and duets which ranged from seemingly effortless to virtuosic. And the instrumentalists in those pieces were spectacular in their own solo passages. Sponsored at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church through the church’s Celebration Works Concert Series, the forces had enough room to be positioned strategically – as with the trumpets and timpani placement toward the back — and the resulting sound produced a satisfying orchestral balance.

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