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McGegan's B Minor Mass

available at Amazon
G. B. Stauffer, Bach: The Mass in B Minor
(Yale University Press, 2003)
British early music conductor Nicholas McGegan has been guest conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra every year since 2012. He has made his name mostly in the United States, as music director of Philharmonia Baroque in California, although he is a frequent guest with other ensembles, including having led the NSO Messiah in 2014. His latest project with the band from Charm City is Bach's B Minor Mass, which he conducted on Thursday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, reportedly the first performance of the work by the ensemble in decades.

Washington certainly has no shortage of performances of the B Minor Mass, and in more historically informed versions. Although Joshua Rifkin's assertion that this work and others by Bach should be performed with one singer on each part has not been widely accepted, most scholars agree that the performing forces were modest. Bach specialist George B. Stauffer, who has published a fine book on the B Minor Mass, estimates that Bach destined the work for a chorus of ten to fifteen singers and an instrumental ensemble of twenty to twenty-five players, the forces used in most of our favorite recordings. McGegan compromised at about sixty singers (drawn from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society) and thirty-some instrumentalists, reduced forces certainly but with the acoustic demands of a larger hall in mind.

Tom Hall is stepping down this year after a distinguished career leading the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. That may be one reason why significant problems plagued the ensemble's accustomed clarity of intonation (especially in the soprano sections, who often trended flat) and well-aligned coordination, which may be due to some occasionally frenetic shifts of tempo from McGegan. Perhaps it was because the full ensemble was not present, perhaps it was because they sang in mixed formation: whatever the reason, the success of the B Minor Mass rests largely on the chorus, and this had some effective parts but was underwhelming as a whole. Masaaski Suzuki had greater success with the University of Maryland Concert Choir last year.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A concert mass gets an intimate performance (Washington Post, May 28)

Tim Smith, BSO offers Bach's B minor Mass in style (Baltimore Sun, May 28)

David Rohde, Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’ with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Choral Arts Society (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, May 27)
The solo quartet featured especially fine work from bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who was outstanding in the "Quoniam tu solus" section of the Gloria, with a few minor struggles at the top in the "Et in spiritum sanctum" movement of the Credo. Soprano Yulia Van Doren melded well with light-voiced tenor Thomas Cooley, while generally overpowering countertenor Christopher Ainslie, who had the least satisfying sound of the quartet. The timbre of countertenor can work with a boy treble or a lighter soprano in this work, but with a full-bodied voice like Van Doren, it did not.

The playing from the selected members of the BSO was generally polished, with McGegan helping to keep the balance with the singers at the proper level. Excellent solos came from flute and horn principals, with Katherine Needleman standing out on both oboe and oboe d'amore. Although the instruments and pitch were all modern, including the electronic Allen organ for the continuo, McGegan included some aspects from historical research, such as using the articulation marks from the 1733 Dresden orchestral parts, partly written by Bach himself. Still it was hard not to miss the rougher edges of historical instruments, like the sometimes bumptious corno da caccia.

This concert repeats tonight, at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

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