Cantate Chamber Singers present a non-mass version of Bach’s Mass in B minor

Sun Dec 16, 2018 at 12:14 pm
By Joan Reinthaler

Gisele Becker conducted the Cantate Chamber Singers Saturday night.

A hallmark of Gisele Becker’s 25-year tenure as music director of the Cantate Chamber Singers has been the interesting and far-reaching programs she has put together. This is her farewell season with the chorus and the well-attended Cantate program she led at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Saturday night was a splendid example of why she and her chorus have built such a following.

The music was all by Johann Sebastian Bach–the Magnificat to begin with and then, in true Becker fashion, an exploration of his B-Minor Mass in which no music of the mass was actually performed. This was possible because Bach didn’t so much write most of the mass as assemble it from pre-existing bits and pieces of cantatas he had composed over the years.

Ten of these cantata movements made up the non-mass mass that Becker put together for this program. There was a chorus from Cantata No. 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, written in 1714, more than 30 years before it was resurrected, somewhat altered, as the “Crucifixus” of the mass. Bach lifted some cantata movements almost verbatim – the Gloria from Cantata No. 191 fit into the Mass neatly and, with a change of text, the fourth movement of Cantata No. 11 was a lovely choice for the Agnus Dei. Other movements needed more massaging to make the leap. The light-hearted first movement of Cantata 171 certainly wasn’t an obvious candidate for the powerful Patrem Omnipotentem section of the Credo that it was to become.

The surprise of the bunch was the delightful choral ancestor of the Mass’s two Osanna choruses: a movement from Cantata 215 that, instead of the Osanna’s emphatic upbeat, takes off like a ski jumper with a flippant four-note upward swoop that adds a lift to what eventually became the incisive down-beat of a peasant-like dance

The program was an endurance challenge for the singers and, for the most part, they met it well, singing the final chorus with the same energy they began the evening with. Standing in sections for the Magnificat they seemed to have a hard time hearing other parts and consequently, in keeping together as an ensemble.

But arranged in quartets after intermission, they sounded like a completely different chorus, assured, blended and together. Balance would have profited from four or five more singers in both the tenor and bass sections.

Becker assembled a baroque orchestra for the program that featured some gorgeously agile flute and oboe d’amore playing and a poised and alert continuo contingent. The strings, struggling with ensemble for much of the evening, came through meltingly in the Agnus Dei precursor but the brass trio struggled all evening. Natural trumpets, trumpets without valves whose pitches are varied entirely with the lips, are notoriously difficult to tame and these remained ornery to the end.

Singing from the pulpit at some distance behind the orchestra, the soloists took a while to settle in. Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux sounded uncertain in her reading of the Exsultavit from the Magnificat and., acoustic issues dealt with, sang the Quia Respexit with glowing confidence and musicality. Mezzo Barbara Hollinshead provided one of the evening’s highlights with her quiet but intense singuing in the Cantata No. 11 performance and tenors Adam Apostoli and Mark Bublitz and bass James Rogers handled their solos with earnest aplomb.

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