It may be hard for music lovers to swallow, but Johann Sebastian Bach actually completed his transcendent Mass in B Minor as a petition to the Elector of Saxony to win the Kapellmeister post at the Dresden court. Bach's vast edifice was composed and compiled piecemeal between 1714 and 1749, much of the music reworked from his earlier cantatas. Though transmitting a profound statement of faith, the work has become an icon for the concert hall over the past century and a half to an extent surpassing any specific religion or liturgy.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem brought Bach's Mass to the Kennedy Center Monday night, reaffirming the sheer emotion and sense of monumentality this music invokes. Conductor Greg Funfgeld straddled a path balancing the force of dogmatic belief with unbridled human abandon. The Pennsylvania-based choir and Bach Festival Orchestra reached the stars in such jubilant dance-impelled movements as "Et resurrexit" and in the fugal "Pleni sunt coeli," ferocious zeal animated with pulsing buoyancy. Yet in the Kyrie and Credo the sluggish orchestra and choir missed that riveting drive that spells total conviction. In addition, the soprano section often sang below pitch and the tenors, while a sturdy bunch, simply lacked enough bodies against the other sections.
In the "Laudamus te," soprano Rosa Lamoreaux's resplendent voice endowed Bach's mercilessly long lines with the spin of inevitability; and her duet with soprano Tamara Matthews, "Christe eleison," was a model of superbly matched timbre and phrasing.
Tenor Frederick Urrey's "Benedictus" coupled warmth with energy. Mezzo Marietta Simpson's "Agnus Dei" was a moving statement of sonorous solemnity. Baritone William Sharp and bass baritone Daniel Lichti lent overwhelming drama to their arias, but in the "Quoniam" Anthony Cecere's virtuoso horn was too loud. The instrumental soloists were outstanding, especially Robin Kani's engaging flute, but in a French romantic rather than baroque style.