Into the Bach B minor

Chorale has embarked on its arduous journey through Bach’s B Minor Mass. Our concert will take place at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on April 3; that gives us fourteen formal rehearsals (plus fourteen weeks of each singer’s private time) to learn, or relearn, many thousands of notes, to get them into our voices and into our ensemble sound, and to reach some understanding, for this go round at least, of the way in which the work hangs together, from beginning to end. This is not a light undertaking; the ensemble does not exist, that is not challenged to its furthest limits, in coming to some accommodation with Bach’s intent, and his means of getting there. No group, no conductor, accomplishes the ultimate interpretation or performance-- there is no one right answer, or even set of answers. I am reminded of the story about the elephant and the blind wise men: not a one of us can really know this elephant. Chorale has chosen to perform with an orchestra of period instruments—and this decision immediately erects some fences around our definition of the elephant. Period instruments play one-half step lower than modern instruments, which changes the timbre of the work, and alters the challenges for the singers. Period instruments are nowhere near as loud as the modern instruments to which our audiences, and our singers, are accustomed; they cannot sustain individual tones and phrases as modern instruments would, and must accomplish expression, articulation, and line, using different resources. Altogether, they make a far different sound, and have a far different impact, than modern instruments do. Chorale must bend toward the orchestra: the orchestra, even if it wished to, cannot bend toward us. Our volume must match theirs; our articulation, our phrasing, our coloratura, our tempos, even our vocalism, must lean in their direction, if we are to come up with a valid, unified performance. Along the way, we must constantly bear in mind that this is the sort of orchestra Bach had at his disposal—the “period” in question is his period. In committing ourselves to working with such an orchestra, we explore, by default, some version of Bach’s assumptions about vocal sound, and hope to discover aspects of the mass which would not be evident, which we might not consider, were we working with modern instruments. We do this as much for ourselves, for our own pleasure and edification, as we do it for our listeners.

This is not to say that I, or members of the choir, eschew performance of Bach’s music on modern instruments. Bach speaks as brilliantly through Glenn Gould as he does through Gustav Leonhart. The fact that Chorale utilizes women’s voices, rather than boys, immediately declares our accommodation to modern circumstances; and this is only the first entry on a list of things that would not have occurred to Bach. Modern players and singers, through the second half of the 20th century and now into the 21st, have learned a great deal about baroque style, affect, and articulation, which they adapt to modern instruments and vocal categories—and in many instances they are able to synthesize new and creative approaches to the performance of Bach’s music, which speak authentically to modern audiences.

Chorale wants to do more than present a concert. We want to take a journey. Some of the singers, who have not previously sung the work, will spend the next fourteen weeks in survival mode, just trying to stay on the trail; others, who have sung it before, will be freer to look at the scenery, freer to enjoy the details and gasp in delight, rather than in fear, at the incredible features we will encounter along the way. My own greatest wish for the singers is that we all come to understand, through this experience, that the B Minor Mass is not only the best we humans can come up with, but that it is transcendingly good, and that we are a part of this transcendent goodness; that there is more to us, more to hope for and plan for and celebrate, than the brutality, the violence, the hatred, which we daily confront in one another. A human being, one of us, composed this monumental and life-transforming work; just knowing that, should make us better people.