By any reasonable measure, staging J.S. Bach’s epic Mass in B Minor with a community chorus is a remarkable achievement.
And Brett Karlin, who directs the Master Chorale of South Florida, was not to be deterred from mounting a performance of this, his favorite choral composition. He put his 121 singers through numerous extra rehearsals, brought The Symphonia Boca Raton in for accompaniment, and hired a quintet of expert soloists to handle the solo work.
The end result was most impressive in the aggregate: There we were on Nov. 20 at the Roberts Theater on the campus of St. Andrew’s School in western Boca Raton, watching a giant gathering of mostly community singers tackle one of the most difficult pieces in the literature. If the purely musical results were something of a mixed bag, there were deducible reasons for that, and they did not detract too much from the overall grandeur of the project.
And at its best, it was truly grand: The exultant D major choruses with trumpets and orchestra going all out, voices delivering the contrapuntal mastery that has been the envy of composers ever since, the overwhelming sense of a monument to faith. When the five soloists — sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Nola Richardson, countertenor Douglas Dodson, tenor Dann Coakwell and baritone Paul Max Tipton — were singing together, they sounded like a first-rate madrigal ensemble. And there were fine moments in the spotlight from all the instrumental soloists, flutist Karen Dixon and hornist Brett Miller in particular.
But while the chorus could sound mighty and weighty, it just as often sounded tentative and much smaller than its size (I tried two different seats in the hall and found it that way in both places). In a piece such as the “Credo,” which opened the second half of the concert, pitches and intervals were not precise, though everyone was clearly trying hard. Bach is just that much more difficult than Handel and other composers of his generation; in a piece such as Messiah, even difficult fugue subjects like the concluding “Amen” are couched in a strong melodic arc, while in Bach, a subject like that of the “Credo” is much harder to “hear,” though the possibilities it suggests are far more expansive.
In other words, Handel, man of the theater that he was, is always trying to write memorable song, while Bach often uses unpromising material to build something astonishing. That presents a real hurdle to amateur singers living in a time when the tune is everything.
The soloists, most of them familiar to local audiences from appearances with Seraphic Fire, provided the most satisfying musical moments of the afternoon. Greenleaf and Richardson offered a beautiful “Christe eleison,” with their voices blending ideally. Greenleaf’s high notes have an unusual purity, and Richardson has a lovely instrument and a fine command of Baroque ornament. Tipton’s “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” was especially good, with a firm grasp of its acrobatic writing and a strong, clear voice rising above two chugging bassoons and a powerful horn.
Coakwell’s soft, warm tenor was a good fit for his reading of the “Benedictus,” and Dodson brought an intensely pleading quality to the shattered, mournful landscape of the “Agnus Dei.” All five had cause to blend with their colleagues, and the polish and beauty of their sound was lovely to hear.
Karlin did a very fine job of putting his stamp on the Mass, and getting across how life-engaging it is. He exercised sovereign command of all the forces he was marshaling, and presented a mostly mainstream, deeply felt reading of this work. He did not make the mistake of slowing down too much to impart sublimity; he did that in places such as the “Gratias agimus tibi” (and the “Dona nobis pacem,” which repeats it) by building slowly and serenely from nothing and letting the contrapuntal lines gather weight and power until he had a formidable edifice.
Some of the trickier celebratory moments, such as the “Cum sancto spiritu,” came off very well, with strong singing from the chorus and sharp playing from the Symphonia. And Karlin made a wise choice in giving some of the shorter segments, such as the “Et incarnatus est,” to the five soloists, where its thicket of chromaticism would be easier navigated.
This was an exceptional achievement for this group, and this conductor, and in remarks before the music Karlin said he would probably revisit the piece in six or seven years. If so, I might suggest using a smaller choir overall for those performances, one in which all of its members are more comfortable with the Bachian idiom. Or given Karlin’s love of Bach, it might be worthwhile to do one or another of the short Lutheran masses he wrote, which are beautiful but too rarely done.
Nevertheless, this Bach Mass in B minor was well worth doing, and it says something admirable and encouraging about the ambition of this chorale’s young director, and his singers’ willingness to reach for the top shelf.