In my music library, I have, at last count, thirteen recordings of the Mass in B-Minor (not to mention the several books on the subject). You could say that I’m a bit of a connoisseur – several times a year, I listen to what is my sort of dream-team Mass. I assemble the tastiest bits from a large variety of the recordings, and I imagine what the perfect recording (were there such a thing) would sound like: Herreweghe’s ritardando bridging the Gloria in excelcis to the Et in terra pax, Funfgeld’s and Taylor’s Agnus dei, Rosa Lamoreaux’s and Liz Field’s Laudamus te, Suzuki’s Sanctus tempo, with Herreweghe’s phrasing, Gardiner’s Cum Sancto Spiritu and Et Expecto, Robert King’s Benedictus, with the late, great Anthony Rolfe Johnson. I shall spare you the remaining details – the list is quite long, and much more detailed. This work is quite easily at the top of my list, and is the cultural touchstone and wellspring that has animated my musical self for as long as it’s been since I first heard it. And, as long as that’s been (I just did the math, it’s been 25 years), the place where I want to experience it most is here, in Bethlehem.
Most would agree that the jewel in the crown of the Bethlehem Bach Festival is the Mass, and there are surely members of our audience who have been making the pilgrimage for at least twice as long as me. Greg Funfgeld will observe 31 years of ascending that mountain, and colleagues in the choir have been doing it even longer than him. Few organizations have as venerable a history with this piece as we do, having given its American premiere, and having performed it most years since. I think that contributes to an aura of reverence and respect, something that makes Packer Memorial Church especially holy ground (as Greg puts it) for two Saturdays each may. If performances of the Mass are now far more varied and much more plentiful than in the early days of our Festival, I remain convinced that what we offer here remains quite unique and valuable, and equally importantly, fresh and vital.
For one, there’s the performing tradition – we’re an organization that knows the work forward and backwards. I should hasten to add that we don’t take that for granted – Bach’s music is always prepared to ensnare the complacent. But, our performances of the Mass have been honed over a century. For some of us, it’s almost second nature, for newer members, it’s a white-knuckled baptism by fire (it took me a couple years to not feel anxiety about getting all the notes right – and I still remain quite on guard). It is always exciting to perform. Similarly, our instrumentalists and vocal soloists have used their extensive experience of the work, and performing it in Bethlehem, to hone and refine. When Liz and Rosa tackle the Laudamus te, it’s with a simultaneous spirit of reverence and playfulness, offered with both humility and panache. When they begin that ageless instrumental and vocal dialogue, I defy you to want to hear it anywhere else. Or, for that matter, when Agnes Zsigovics and Rosa offer some sunshine between the gravity and solemnity of the two Kyries. Their Christe eleison, with the obbligato of sinuous strings is the very essence of a baroque love duet – bring intimately close the plea for mercy that Bach couches in such effusive musical language. How about the quartet of Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa on oboe, Chuck Holdeman on bassoon, with the incomparable Bill Sharp offering the Et in spiritu sanctam? Loretta O’Sullivan and Charlotte Mattax Moersch playing cello and continuo organ, with Robin Kani duetting with Ben Butterfield, flute and tenor, respectively, offering the Mass’s most intimate and devout movement, the Benedictus. Whenever I work with string players from the Bach Festival Orchestra at my church, we talk about the “Bach Pause” before the last notes of lento movements. This is something that’s never conducted, but is the result of 120 or so musicians feeling and breathing together. What about Dan Lichti offering the Quoniam with raucous bassoons and the majestic horn playing of Tony Cecere? I could continue to wax rhapsodic about the experience – Danny Taylor and the strings, wringing every bit of emotion and devotion out of the Agnus Dei, or the whole company blazing away in the Cum Sancto Spiritu, with Larry Wright crowning the plenum with fearless and highly dexterous trumpetings. One of my favorite moments is at the conclusion of the Et expecto, when we pause to take a few breaths with Greg. We’ve just finished an ecstatic dance of melismatic brilliance, and I suspect you can feel our collective hearts racing. I think what I’m getting at is that we are a group of players and singers who wear our hearts full of love for Bach and his music proudly on our sleeves. As an amateur choir, we give a considerable amount of leisure time to the daunting project of making this music, of offering beauty and devotion, of refreshing our souls and those of our audience. Our orchestral members make the pilgrimage from near and far, often turning down other gigs, to partake in our rite of spring.
The Mass is Bach’s summa, the culmination of his life’s work, and for many of us, the summation of every gift bestowed upon him by his creator. Its scope is vast, its design ornate, its theology dense and learned, its demands imposing, its effect undeniably overwhelming, and yet, at the same time, despite the loftiest of heights its composition achieves, I think it is recognizably and discernibly human. There are moments when we are grounded in the most earthly of settings and emotions, and others when we ascend to the clouds of heaven in an ocean of praise. I can think of no work of art that so readily offers an experience of spiritual, emotional, or aesthetic transcendence (or a combination of some or all of the three). I love that we, all of us – audience and performers, alike, can return to our holiest ground and revel in such an overwhelming experience. I encourage you to bring a friend, a loved one, someone new, to experience the heights of the Mass, and experience anew, the pinnacle of our musical offerings.