Sunday, May 16, 2010

Back Bay Chorale Bach performance

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Back Bay Chorale's performance of Bach's B Minor Mass. It was quite an enjoyable experience, although it produced quite the internal intellectual quandary in me!

First things first, since I suspect that the vast majority of people to read this will be members of the chorus poking around the internet for reviews. The chorus's tuning was admirable, as was their rhythm; they were crisply in tempo the entire time, no mean feat. And their runs were remarkably clean for a chorus of their size; there was tons of space in the fast passagework, which was absolutely crucial. I really can't say enough good things about that amount of space in the phrasing. The majority of the singers were quite engaged, but there were some members who needed to get out of their books more (ahem, I noticed a few tenors in particular.) The orchestra was also very good; I especially enjoyed the flute solos.

The soloists were all extremely classy. Kendra Colton's instrument is a little too heavy for Bach for my taste, but her execution was flawless, and Krista River, Aaron Sheehan, and Sumner Thompson, all heavy hitters in the Boston area, were superb. I was also delighted to hear Sonja Tengblad given the chance to shine; I heard her at the Boston Singer's Resource auditions last month and her voice is ever so pretty, although I felt she was pushing a little given the size of the forces and the hall.

I had only one true complaint the entire night, and that for the maestro. Dr. Jarrett, come over here where no one can hear us. Now, I know you are more experienced than I. And I thought your gesture was both precise and expressive, something I envied greatly. You led the entire evening with intense focus and great aplomb. I know a number of your choristers, and they all not only love you, but think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And your excellent leadership clearly extends beyond the podium, because on a night with approximately a billion choral concerts the best seat I could get was in the back row of the balcony. But please, please, PLEASE do not mouth the words, especially to your soloists! You have done this before, and it drives me nuts! I admit this is one of my particular pet peeves, and I heartily disapprove of it when done to choruses, but doing it to soloists looks even worse. It gives the appearance you don't trust them and need to micromanage them. You know Krista River will make the magic happen, so please don't mouth at her. However, aside from that, I was amazed that you were able to lead such a large ensemble to such a tight performance of some very dense music.

And the subject of the size of the forces brings me to the main issue that pretty much dominated my experience last night. I'm not an early music expert, but I do love it, and I have always preferred a light, clean, crystalline sound for Baroque music, especially for Bach. I want everything to be as transparent as possible. So looking down at the giant stage with the sizeable orchestra and the massive chorus, I was pretty skeptical, and the Kyrie didn't really shake me out of my skepticism; it sounded like everyone was working very hard to stay clean, and didn't pack a clear emotional punch. But then the Gratias Agimus movement came, and it was really profoundly moving, as was the next chorus movement, the Qui Tollis. And I spent the rest of the concert waffling about questions of size. On the one hand, despite the chorus's rhythmic precision, and the amount of space they left between their runs, the size of the forces really precluded the highest level of lightness and transparency. On the other hand, the slightly slower movements sounded wonderfully rich in a way that a smaller force couldn't have managed. The Sanctus section really exemplified this dichotomy for me; the Sanctus, with its fabulous swingy sound, practically demanded an enormous choir, but then the Pleni sunt coeli, with its nimble runs, begged for a lighter sound. Big choir, little choir? This was the major question of the evening for me. I walked into the concert thinking I knew the answer; I walked out in a state of fluctuating doubt. The concert didn't answer the question; by posing a strong defense of the advantages of a large ensemble (with the Dona Nobis Pacem providing the perfect closing argument) it opened my mind up to the debate in the first place, a debate I hadn't really been open to before. So, well played, Back Bay Chorale.


  1. Thanks, Allegra--I was sorry I couldn't hear that (in a concert of my own, natch.)

  2. @ Carolyn:

    What concert? I hope it went well! (It was really an overwhelming weekend for choral concerts.)