Led by its founder, Daniel Abraham, the Bach Sinfonia launched its 20th season with a marvelous, technically sure account of J.S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, BWV. 232. (It was never publicly performed or even published in the composer’s lifetime.) Saturday’s performance played to a capacity audience at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. But Abraham veered away from what we have come to expect today.
Scholarly controversy continues to churn around what “historically” sized performing group fits this Mass and some other baroque works. Like some other early-music groups, Abraham’s confident and potent conducting showed that you don’t necessarily need massive choruses for Bach’s Mass to knock you over with its astounding beauty, although big choruses in large concert halls such as the Kennedy Center’s can work, too.
Saturday’s modest performance space perfectly suited Abraham’s 15-member chorus (three to a part for Bach’s five-part textures, with some juggling of the choristers for other combinations). The versatile vocal soloists also sang in the chorus, with the orchestra playing delicately sounding baroque-period instruments tuned to today’s pitch level.
Besides movements composed specifically for this Mass, the work also includes a colossal, typically Bach reworking of earlier liturgical settings, medieval chant, cantatas and everything else under the sun. Bach transformed all of this into a sublime whole.
With sensitively tuned gestures, Abraham summoned his musicians to voice the music’s dramatic span of human emotions raised to ethereal heights by a composer who sought to reach beyond human capabilities. And both singers and instrumentalists were up to this marvelous assignment, though the opening movement seemed a bit unsure. Alto Deborah Rentz-Moore combined vigor, elegance and wonderfully clean vowels in her solos. Sopranos Shannon Mercer and Emily Noel, tenor Sumner Thompson and bass John Taylor Ward sang with finely calibrated precision and heart-rending expressivity. Flutist Kathie Stewart and hornist Paul Hopkins played with a well-balanced blend of mellow sonorities, control and unflagging technical expertise.
The Sinfonia has scheduled Bach’s music throughout its entire season, which runs through next May.
Porter is a freelance writer.