Many of the greatest Masses of the Western concert literature are hybrid blends of secular and sacred forms, personal testaments tenuously tethered to religious form: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, the Verdi and Brahms requiems, Britten’s “War Requiem,” even Bernstein’s Mass. At the start of this tradition was Bach’s Mass in B Minor, written over the course of his lifetime, not performed until a concert many years after his death, and containing a compendium of music and musical forms not usually associated with a church that was, in any case, not Bach’s own. He was a Lutheran, a prodigious producer of cantatas; the Mass is Catholic. The B Minor Mass transcends the distinction.
On Thursday at Strathmore, Nicholas McGegan led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was, like the work, both hybrid and personal, with a sense of the homemade, the intimate, the human, and the transcendent, particularly in the inspired playing of the reduced but ardent orchestra.
McGegan is a buoyant conductor, able to bring out a piece’s inner radiance — finding, for instance, the spark within the tragedy of “Crucifixus etiam” that transforms the chorus into a burst of pure joy with “Et resurrexit.”
He emphasized the intimacies of the piece by having instrumental soloists stand along with the vocal ones. Jonathan Carney, the vivid concertmaster, shone alongside the soprano Yulia Van Doren in “Laudamus te” in the “Gloria.” Emily Skala, the principal flute, emphasized the flowing dances within her tempi in the “Domine Deus” duet with Van Doren and the gentle tenor Thomas Cooley, whose voice was wistfully appealing when not placed under too much pressure. The oboist Katherine Needleman was warm and full against the “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” of the countertenor Christopher Ainslie, who has a fine high sound but grew tired, hard and monochromatic by his final aria, “Agnus Dei.” Only the horn principal Philip Munds remained seated, haloed by the other brass, in the “Quoniam tu solus” of Dashon Burton, an appealing singer with a clear baritonal top and a warmth that signals potential deepening of his lower register. His “Et in spiritum sanctum” was a highlight.
The chorus does much heavy lifting in this piece. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society created what at times seemed a Babel of distinct voices, an oddly disjunct showing that furnished much of the “handmade” sense of the evening. It was a performance with many lovely moments that fell slightly short of the transcendent statement that this work, especially, is able to make when all the pieces come together.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra The program repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore.