Acoustics are like servants. When they're good, you don't notice them; things just go smoothly. When they're bad, they can make an awful mess of things.

The Washington Cathedral is many wonderful things; it is not a concert hall. The acoustics are terrible, and yesterday they made hash of the Bach B Minor Mass.

The 200 well-trained voices of the Cathedral Choral Society, fine instrumentalists from the National Symphony, the soloists, conductor Paul Callaway, and, above all, Bach. deserved better.

Occasionally, in a soft "Et Incarnatus' and "Crucifixus," in the delight "Benedictus" aria and in the orchestral introduction to the "Agnus Dei," the true beauties of the music could be heard, and these were lovely moments indeed.

The choral sound glowed. Callaway created awe and wonder without recourse to the usual melodramatic devices of exaggerated dynamics or maudlin Victorianisms.

But for the listener, these moments were rare. The louder the sounds and the more complicated the counterpoint, the more extreme was the distortion. Soprano Carole Bogard and mezzo-soprano Beverly Wolff, stationed way up in the pulpit, had trouble hearing the orchestra. Only tenor Gene Tucker seemed to have that problem solved.

Callaway, who paced the piece so beautifully, was forced to devote most of his energies to simply holding things together.

This experience must be so frustration for all the participants that one wounders why they continue to perform at the Cathedral at all.