Closing in on our performance

Confronted with the issues I have explored in the preceding weeks, plus a host of others, Chorale and I have made a lot of choices.

Chicago Chorale normally consists of sixty singers.  Though enormous choruses have sung the Mass in B minor, and still do, the general trend has been toward smaller forces-- on occasion, just one singer per part.  Frequently, even when larger groups sing it, a smaller group, termed concertists, will introduce many of the movements, will sing particularly difficult passages as solos, will even sing the more intimate movements entirely on their own. Sometimes, these concertists will be members of the choir; alternatively, they may be the soloists who also sing the aria and duet movements.   This trend toward ripienist/concertist texture is supported by the scholarly literature.

Chorale is by no means a symphony chorus, but we are larger than ensembles which present the most praised, modern versions of the work.  We could have chosen to bypass the work altogether, in honor of scholarship and in acknowledgment of the fact that we do not reflect cutting edge performance practice research-- but then we would be deprived of the glorious experience of learning and performing the work, and our audience would be deprived of the opportunity to hear it.  So we chose to sing it, and to devote tremendous effort toward lightening our sound and articulation, while making the most of our full sound where it is needed and welcome.

We also chose to forego the ripienist/concertist procedure—which could have been interesting and appropriate for our forces.  Such a procedure feels “professional” in the worst and most manipulative sense of the word;  and I want Chorale to experience all of the music, each note, as an amateur event—an act of love.  As Robert Shaw said—music, like sex, is too good to be left to the professionals. Again, this forces us to be more careful in our control of texture and dynamics than we would be if those issues were resolved through controlling the size of the forces.

Chorale has chosen to sing the Latin text with a German pronunciation.  Most ensembles use the more common Italianate pronunciation, and have good results; and recent research indicates that the German pronunciation Chorale uses, based on modern German, is not necessarily the pronunciation Bach used or intended. So we can’t defend our choice on a secure, scholarly basis.  But our choice does suggest the music’s German background.  And I agree with Helmuth Rilling’s point that German consonants articulate more clearly than Italian, while German vowels narrow and clarify the vocal line, even for an entire section of singers, lending greater definition to Bach’s remarkably complex counterpoint.  This is particularly necessary with a group of our size:  clarity of pitch and line is far more important, in this music, than the beautiful, Italianate production of individual voices in the ensemble, which can actually work against an accurate presentation of Bach’s musical ideas.

We chose to present the Mass at Rockefeller Chapel, on the campus of The University of Chicago, because the building’s size and grandeur reflect Bach’s music more accurately than other spaces available to us. The Hyde Park community, which surrounds the Chapel, represents, in a purer form than other Chicago neighborhoods, the combination of scholarship, idealism, and high culture which can support concerts like this.  A high percentage of Chorale’s regular audience are Hyde Park residents, and they often express appreciation for the level of Chorale’s striving and seriousness of intent.  And from a purely monetary point of view, Rockefeller Chapel seats a sufficient number of listeners that, if we sell tickets effectively, we can cover a significant proportion of our production costs (which are mind-boggling) with door receipts.

Our concert is in three weeks.  Sunday, April 3, 3 p.m.

We have rehearsed, and I have written about the experience, since the beginning of January.  The writing has focused my study, my reading, my thinking about the work; it has been a significant and helpful discipline for me.  I hope you will come to our performance; and I hope you will spread the word, and bring your friends.  I’m a believer; I am convinced that Bach’s Mass in B minor truly is “the greatest artwork of all times and all people,” and I’d like to show you why.