Chicago Chorale’s rough-edged Bach lost in space at Rockefeller Chapel

Mon Mar 27, 2017 at 11:01 am

By Tim Sawyier

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale in Bach's Mass in B minor Sunday at Rockefeller Chapel.
Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale in Bach’s Mass in B minor Sunday at Rockefeller Chapel. File photo: Jasmine Kwong

The Chicago Chorale made a Lenten offering of Bach’s epic Mass in B Minor Sunday afternoon at Rockefeller Chapel. Led by artistic director Bruce Tammen and accompanied on period instruments by the Haymarket Opera Orchestra, the performance saw devoted work from all involved but fell short in several significant regards.

Many of the performance difficulties pertained to Rockefeller Chapel’s problematic acoustic. The Chapel’s interior is cavernous, and the Chorale’s full complement of approximately sixty singers often became a homogenized sonic soup, losing the intricacy of Bach’s glorious counterpoint. While the space itself can be held accountable for some of this garbling, there have been countless other sublime choral concerts in that venue that did not suffer the same fate. Tammen and the singers failed to adjust to their surroundings, which turned the work’s intricate, spirited choruses into undifferentiated washes of sound.

The Haymarket players fared little better, as their ensemble was more or less ragged throughout. The players may not have been able to hear each other adequately across sections because of the acoustic, but over the course of the performance neither they nor Tammen made much effort to adjust. The result was a protracted tour of balance problems, lost lines, and monochromatic dynamics. The three trumpet players could barely be heard in tutti passages, to which they typically add a vital clarion sheen, which gives an idea of the extent of the balancing woes.

Tammen had to restart the “Gratias agimus tibi” after a few bars when multiple sections—vocal and instrumental—failed to catch his cues and entered at odds with each other. This was emblematic of the lack of cohesion and attention to detail that ultimately sank the performance.

The afternoon was saved by the four accomplished soloists engaged for the affair: soprano Chelsea Shephard, alto Angela Young Smucker, tenor Stephen Soph, and bass David Govertsen. Govertsen, a Ryan Opera Center member, was a last-minute replacement for Ryan de Ryke, who had to withdraw on short notice due to illness.

The reduced forces called for in many of the work’s solo arias somewhat alleviated the ensemble issues, and Shephard’s contributions were particularly striking throughout. Her robust tone made for an elevated “Laudamus te,” though concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock’s ornate violin solo sounded a bit frantic, when audible. Shephard also cultivated a warm and welcoming blend with Smucker in the “Christe eleison” and “Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum.”

Smucker’s lithe rendition of the “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris” was elegantly adorned with Stephen Bard’s attractive playing on oboe d’amore, and her delivery of the penultimate “Angus Dei” had a contemplative pathos. Soph has an attractive, ringing tenor, but occasionally overpowered Shephard in the “Domine Deus.” His “Benedictus,” however, was evocatively reverential, and enhanced by supple flute playing from Anita Reider.

Govertsen was at a disadvantage given his lack of prep time but on the whole acquitted himself well, though the famous horn solo in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,”was virtually inaudible. (Horn player Celeste Holler never really had a shot as she was tucked behind Govertsen and the pair of bassoons, her bell facing straight back.) Govertsen’s “Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum” was stellar, his delicate interplay with the oboes d’amore refined and genuinely affecting.

The performance ended on a high note. The final “Dona nobis pacem” emerged as if from nowhere, and Tammen built a well-paced, organic crescendo across the movement to bring one of the great works in the Western canon to an uplifting conclusion–alas, too little, too late.

The Chicago Chorale’s final performance of the year features works of Palestrina and Thompson June 10 at Hyde Park Union Church.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Chorale’s rough-edged Bach lost in space at Rockefeller Chapel”

  1. Posted Mar 28, 2017 at 10:50 am by J. Singer

    I disagree with much of what this reviewer heard at Sunday’s performance, and can only assume he was either a) sitting in an area of the chapel where the acoustics were especially bad (there are such pockets, but surely an usher tried to steer him toward the reserved seats where the blend is best), or b) that he doesn’t appreciate the challenges of period instrumentation (dynamic limits chief among them, but also a lesser potential for legato and a greater potential for balance problems since the instruments are 200-300 years old).

    It also seems a little bush league to fault a conductor for re-starting a section when there is confusion over a tempo. I’ve seen this happen at Orchestra Hall. A good conductor knows the goal isn’t perfection in the sense of flawlessness (no mistakes) but rather, musical excellence.

    Which brings me to my last point: the reviewer does well to spotlight the final movement, Dona Nobis Pacem, as a concert highlight. But there were others, including the transition between the Crucifixus and Resurrection sections (arguably the most dramatic moment both musically and theologically in the whole work). There are many interpretations of the Mass available, and this is a good thing. Surely we don’t want to get in the habit of dismissing interpretations simply because they don’t map onto our preconceptions and our modern acoustical expectations.

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