Dramatic Bach from City Choir of Washington

May 16, 2011

Drawing a line between sacred and dramatic, even theatrical, music is a tricky business. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the National Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon, when the City Choir of Washington and its orchestra presented Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor.

Despite some occasional flaws in ensemble and intonation, the performance was one of the most meaningful and engaging that I have heard in a long time. The height of this dramatic interpretation came near the end with mezzo Barbara Hollinshead, whose tender, articulated Agnus Dei was simply sublime.

Conductor Robert Shafer paced his chorus and orchestra at tempos that accorded with the subtly changing emotions of each Mass section. And the members of the chorus enunciated the Latin text as precisely as if it were their native tongue. (But I have qualms about the English translation from the Latin in the printed program.)

On Sunday, tonal shadings, tempos, split-second interplay between the singers and orchestra were all calibrated for the acoustics of a vibrant and mammoth sanctuary. The never-ending arguments about how large a chorus and orchestra Bach would have wanted became moot. There is no hard evidence of his intentions, and he conceived and composed the later parts of the Mass as an extension or fulfillment of his initial Kyrie and Gloria.

That raises the question of whether to interrupt the work with an intermission, as happened Sunday, or to save applause and bowing until the end of the Mass. Why not perform the whole piece straight through, as I have heard done successfully several times?

Although there were some ensemble issues at entrances (brass and timpani were squeezed into a side space), it was a pity that the names of the fine orchestra players weren’t listed in the program.

The vocal soloists (Elizabeth Kluegel, Hollinshead, Matthew Smith and Kerry Wilkerson), who faced taxing assignments, were also exuberant and evenly matched.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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