The Madison Bach Musicians brought us a brave and convincing period-style performance of Bach's monumental Mass in B minor back in 2008, and now they have done it again, even more triumphantly. The two performances of this work stand out in the flurry of events filling this Easter weekend: The first was at the First Congregational Church on Friday, April 18. The program will be repeated at the First Unitarian Society on Saturday, April 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Marshaled for these occasions are 17 members of the Madison Choral Project, led by Albert Pinsonneault, and a period-instrument orchestra of 25 players, assembled through widespread contacts by the Madison Bach Musician's artistic director, Trevor Stevenson, and conducted by UW School of Music faculty member Marc Vallon.
There are four soloists of talent. While tenor Geoffrey Agpalo and bass Timothy Takach were not entirely confident in the first performance, the two ladies proved superb. Soprano Chelsea Morris once again demonstrates her rich and vibrant artistry, while mezzo-soprano Sarah Leuwerke matches Morris in beauty of sound, especially when the two are paired. The soloists' role takes on particular importance in two sections: the opening of the "Credo," and then the beginning of that large liturgical bloc's conclusion, the "Confiteor." In those, the chorus is bypassed and a solo quintet takes over, with soprano Rachel Edie Warrick joining the the five-voice scoring. This is an interesting and plausible choice, though in the Friday performance, the latter piece began badly and had to be restarted.
The chorus sings with clarity and precision. The tricky transformation into a double choir for the "Hosanna" is deftly managed. I did think, though, that a few more singers might have given the chorus a better balance against the orchestra. By sitting quite up front, very close to the orchestra, I may not have experienced the same balance as heard further out in the hall. Still, Bach's scoring can, at times, offer formidable competition to the chorus, and a little careful augmentation would help.
The orchestra itself is simply magnificent. The players are in full command of their old or revived instruments, and they meet all the demands of the color ranges Bach called for, in the terms that would have been familiar to him. It is thrilling to hear how far Stevenson has come in creating an authentic-sounding Baroque orchestra for Madison audiences. This is an advantage for Vallon, who is moving forward in his own development as an orchestra conductor.
Save for one section when Vallon takes up his usual bassoon among an aria's wind obligatists, he conducts throughout, with energy and flair. (It is not a mere pun to call him an "upbeat conductor," given his body language emphasizing that beat.) Here and there, I felt that his tempos sounded a bit rushed, as in the "Et resurrect" section of the "Credo," when the chorus is sorely tested to keep up with him. And the concluding "Dona nobis pacem" he renders more as brilliance than majesty.
The point, though, is what an achievement Stevenson and his colleagues have made. This grand score, Bach's B-minor Mass, is not performed very often, given its demands. And now it will be less likely to be presented to Madison audience in the old Romantic, mastodonic pacings that used to be standard. This production of the work is given herewith in two large halls, to attentive and strongly enthusiastic audiences. The "historical performance" approach to "early" music has clearly taken root in the Madison public's sensibilities, thanks in major part to Stevenson and his Madison Bach Musicians. How much enriched we are for that!