One adventure remains to be recorded from our trip to New York City last November. Although we spent most of our time looking at art, the evenings offered the chance to listen instead. After lengthy perusal of the offerings that weekend, it turned out to be a no-brainer to decide to go to the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to hear the Bach Mass in B Minor performed by the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus and conducted by Thomas Crawford.
I was raised attending Catholic High Mass every week of my childhood, even if it was a sort of low High Mass—a Gregorian plainchant event more than a resounding choral experience. I remembering enjoying the experience; even if it meant a longer service, at least it provided distraction and entertainment from the incomprehensible Latin service. (Although it may have instigated an interest in language and translation, thanks to the Latin-English prayer books.) But I don’t think it gave me an abiding love for sacred music. When I began to learn to love Bach in my early twenties, I bought a bargain bin recording of the Mass, but I’m not sure I ever listened to it from start to finish.
During the past eighteen months as I’ve been working at expanding my musical horizons into corners of the classical world that I’ve previously ignored, I started wondering about vocal music, never a strong favorite. The B Minor Mass seemed like a logical starting point for such an investigation: it was Bach, it was liturgical; maybe I could find a way in.
Ironically, it turned out still to be difficult to listen to the work from start to finish. Most of my listening time comes while I’m driving or while I’m walking to and from the office on campus. On the rare occasions when I decide to stay up late at night and listen to music while I write letters or draft blog posts, my attention tends to get focused to the point where large chunks of musical time seem to vanish from mind. And so I have once again been experiencing the Mass piecemeal. Add to that the impoverished state of metadata that accompanies digital recordings these days and there’s little help available to learn while I listen, even in short chunks.
And so the chance to see the work performed in its entirety, to watch the soloists and the chorus, to see the shifting patterns of instrumentation in the orchestra from one section of the Mass to another was a revelation of some brilliance. Having a program that provided the text of the prayers was another unexpected bonus: for the first time I could mentally coordinate the musical changes between, say, the solemnity of the “Crucifixus” and the rejoicing of the “Et Resurrexit” sections of the Symbolum Niceum (Credo), adding even more to my appreciation of the work.
For another example, I knew (in the sense of savoir) going in that a gap of about fifteen years existed between the composition of the first half of the Mass, consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria, and the second half, consisting of the Credo, Sanctus, Ossana, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. But I didn’t appreciate (or know, in the sense of connaissance) the difference those years made in the emotional resonance embodied in the two parts. By the time we had arrived at the final section, the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” I could imagine Bach himself offering a prayer for peace at the end of his life, a personal as well as a liturgical plea. There may even have been political overtones if Bach was hoping that the Peace of Dresden would provide continued stability to Dresden and Saxony.
My untutored and often distracted ear had not grasped the way in which the chorus alternated with the soloists throughout the piece. Much less did I appreciate the way in which the soloists were usually accompanied by only one or two instrumentalists (apart from the continuo): the “Qui Sedes” section of the Gloria is scored for the alto voice and two oboes d’amore, for example, and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Benedictus” is a duet for tenor and transverse flute.
All these things became clear to me in the course of the evening, deepening my appreciation for the structure of the work. But what of the performance itself? Here again, my lack of training and real musical knowledge fails me to a degree. I can’t tell you if the American Classical Orchestra and Choir are pre-eminent interpreters of Bach; I can only say that the music sounded beautiful, and that I felt, whether deservedly or not, that the latter half, and the later in terms of composition, seemed to reflect a greater depth and maturity in composition. Given that parts of the entire score were composed at different times and melded together by Bach, I may be imposing an unwarranted construct in my interpretation. The fact that the Orchestra employed period instruments was intellectually satisfying, but I can’t say whether it enhanced the experience in any real way. Subjectively, I was pleased. Objectively, I can’t tell.
Similarly, the recording that I own of the B Minor Mass, by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Alan Gilbert, sounds to me, on the basis of snippets of other recordings I’ve listened to, to possess a crystalline, gorgeous sound. I opted for it over versions by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, names that are better known to me. I’ve read that Gilbert is not known for his work with Bach’s catalog, but in the end, I’m more than happy with my choice. And likewise, the ACO (which seems not to have recorded extensively at all) has secured a lasting place in my affections on the basis of this unforgettable night.
Indeed, one of the questions that I came away from the evening with was why I don’t avail myself of the opportunity to hear more classical music performed live. In part, I suppose it’s because I lack extensive familiarity with the canon: my tastes lean to the Baroque, and concerts in the town where I live more often feature works from the nineteenth century, a taste that still eludes me.
But maybe there’s hope for my education yet. Another of my prejudices when it comes to classical music is against vocal music, and despite my childhood exposure to some forms of sacred music, I’ve resisted listening to it very much as an adult. But coming to love the B Minor Mass has begun to change that. After last summer’s exposure to Vivaldi in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and with the encouragement of my enjoyment of the Mass, I have been settling down to listen to Vivaldi’s Gloria of late, and thanks to the internet emporium’s algorithms, I stumbled with much pleasure into territory I might never have explored on my own, Dvořak’s Stabat Mater. And now, as the solar and liturgical calendars tend toward spring, I’ve recently decided to test myself with another great work by Bach, the St. Matthew Passion. Already, after listening to just the first few segments, I can tell that what I learned from the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus that night at Lincoln Center will stand me in good stead as I explore another monumental composition by the great master of Leipzig.