My Third Time Around
I remember approaching my first Bach B Minor Mass, in 2006, something like Sir Edmund Hillary must have approached his ascent of Mount Everest. This work is so difficult and monumental, and the only path I saw to a successful performance was through hard work, by developing lung capacity, stamina, and endurance—and by staying hydrated. Rehearsals were exhilarating, but at the same time fatiguing. After that first performance, the profound satisfaction I felt was coupled with equally profound exhaustion—both physical and vocal. “I came, I sang, I conquered. Now I want to sleep.”
My second B Minor Mass—six years ago—felt quite different. My familiarity with the score, coupled with the fact that everything was pitched at a=415 (a half-step down), allowed more space for appreciating what makes this work so very great in the first place. This was no longer a forced march to the mountaintop; but a walk through a garden of wonders. I recall marveling at the complexity and perfection of the Kyrie I; admiring the skill with which the cantus firmus emerges from the secondary material in Confiteor (still my favorite movement of the entire work); and being astounded by how there could be so many 16th notes in so many voices and instruments in the Cum Sancto Spiritu, and that the movement could still come across with such clarity and coherence. During my second B Minor Mass, I learned to appreciate Bach as “master composer,” rather than as “master obstacle-course builder.”
This year, some of my reverence for Bach’s compositional skill has been replaced by more general gratitude for this monumental work. Had Bach not bothered to compose it, or had it been lost to history, right now Chicago Chorale would frankly be preparing to perform a lesser piece. But because of this gift to posterity, fifty-five ordinary people are experiencing the magic that happens when engaging this extraordinary work. And as we strive to bring out the very best in the B Minor Mass, the B Minor Mass is bringing out the very best in us. Our collective vocal production is more healthy and vigorous; we are listening better within and across sections; we are sitting up a bit straighter; and we are more honest with ourselves about which spots need individual attention. On some level, Chorale members know that a great performance of a mediocre work still yields a mediocre result. So we are grateful that Bach has given us a masterpiece with a nearly unlimited performance “upside potential,” and we are pulling together to get as close to that ceiling as possible.
This time around, I am also struck by how much fun rehearsals are, by how much I look forward to them, and by the fact that I leave each rehearsal more energized than when I arrive.
How will I experience my fourth B Minor Mass performance? I don’t know, but I hope I’m lucky enough to find out.