Chicago Bach Project culminates in a memorable Mass in B minor
“It is finished,” to quote a biblical line associated with the season. The first complete cycle of the Chicago Bach Project’s ambitious annual Holy Week presentations of Bach’s three major choral works culminated Wednesday night with the performance of the Mass in B minor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park.
Sponsored by the west-suburban based Soli Deo Gloria—founded twenty years ago primarily as a vehicle for commissioning new sacred works—the Chicago Bach Project is patterned after a similarly successful decade-long French series begun by SDG artistic director John Nelson, which alternated the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion and the Mass in B minor in annual rotation during Holy Week at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
What Bach, a devout 18th century Lutheran, was doing writing such an elaborate Latin setting of the Roman Catholic Mass, which was never performed in his lifetime, we will never know for sure, but the Mass in B minor stands as a cornerstone of Western art. The work not only often heads the short list of greatest mass settings ever put to music, but represents the final statement on sacred music from the composer who, for many, reigns as the supreme musical genius of all time.
The modern-instrument orchestra was the smallest yet assembled for the series as was the chorus. Exquisitely prepared by former Lyric Opera chorus master Donald Nally, there were moments when the balance cried out for either a larger chorus or more projection from the singers, the sound being a bit anemic compared to the orchestra.
As has been true of the entire series, the vocal quartet was uneven with none of the singers possessing early-music technique nor being thoroughly at home with this style of music, which produced mixed results.
Soprano Nicole Cabell certainly gave her sections plenty of heart and beautiful sound, given the difficult task of having to blend with the shopworn and unpredictable vibrato of mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel, who was unable to scale brisk passages and whose upper register was often unfocused. That said, when things slowed down and stayed in the lower range in the Benedictus, Henschel brought considerable beauty and poignancy to the climax of the work.
Tenor Stanford Olsen was reliable throughout the evening; bass-baritone Matthew Brook often sounded dry and raspy, sometimes inaudible in the lower register.
Of course, it is the choruses and chorales that are the highlight of the work, and despite the thin choral sound, Nelson was often able to compensate by having the forces sing transparently and with focus, brilliantly building in momentum and dynamics as needed.
The swimmy acoustic of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, the home of the Chicago Bach Project since its inauguration in 2011, remains problematic, but this year, previously used screens behind the orchestra were dispensed with and the chorus placed as far back in the sanctuary as possible. This, taken with the orchestra spread immediately in front of it, allowed for the half dome behind the sanctuary to act as a natural shell of sorts. That setup produced the best sound of the three years, although there were times when Nelson’s brisk and lively tempos ran ahead of the resonant venue.
The Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which were presented after an intermission, were by and large more polished than the Kyrie and Gloria that made up the first half of the evening, the climactic choral sections ringing out with immense jubilation, Nelson keeping an eye on the overall structure of the piece during every section.
After three years of presenting these concerts on the Wednesday of Holy Week, next year the Chicago Bach Project is experimenting with the slight change of moving the performance to the Friday evening before Palm Sunday in an attempt to avoid the midweek pre-Easter crunch for church activities, performer availability and the late-night endurance of audience members.
The Chicago Bach Project will present the St. Matthew Passion April 11, 2014 at St. Vincent DePaul Parish. sdgmusic.org; 630-894-4300.
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