April 20, 2016

Princeton University Glee Club Presents Immortal Bach Work

Johann Sebastian Bach never heard a complete performance of his now classic Mass in B Minor in his lifetime, but over the past 150 years, this five-part work has become a staple of the choral repertory. Loaded with instrumentally-conceived choral coloratura and exacting counterpoint, the Mass in B Minor is considered a pinnacle of choral performance toward which choruses aspire. The Princeton University Glee Club undertook this vocal and instrumental challenge last Sunday evening with a historically informed and clean performance in Richardson Auditorium. Conductor Gabriel Crouch led the 80-voice Glee Club, chamber orchestra, and four vocal soloists in a performance which was lean, sensitive to the text, and strong to the very last note. 

The Mass offers a number of choices in vocal soloists; some conductors hire as many as six soloists to address the ranges and textures of the different arias within the work. The first aria, “Laudamus Te,” requires flexibility of voice and a crystalline lightness, which Sunday night was provided by soprano Jessica Petrus. A singer with command over a wide range of music, Ms. Petrus handled well the vocal filigree of this aria, subtly accompanied by obbligato violin (played by concertmistress Cynthia Roberts) and continuo lower strings and harpsichord.

The suppleness of “Laudamus Te” contrasted with the dark pathos of “Agnus Dei,” sung by mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick with a richness of voice that easily maneuvered the difficult melodic skips. Accompanied by violins playing very drily, Ms. Rearick easily brought out the plaintive nature and long lines of the aria. Ms. Petrus and Ms. Rearick were paired together in duets within the Mass, and both were able to sing through the orchestra well.

The two bass arias of the Mass cover a wide vocal range from high baritone to low bass, and Dashon Burton had no trouble singing it all. His first aria, “Quoniam Tu Solus,” was in a very quick tempo, which Mr. Burton had no trouble handling. The tempo was a bit more problematic for hornist Todd Williams, who accompanied the aria, but the overall effect was very commanding. Mr. Burton sang his second aria with quiet reverence, accompanied by an elegant pair of oboes played by Geoffrey Burgess and Meg Owens. Tenor Thomas Cooley rounded out the quartet, singing the “Benedictus” especially cleanly, in what was a very exposed vocal line, accompanied by very subtle violins, solo flute, and continuo.

Bach’s choral lines convey the passion of the Latin mass text. The chorus starts right in with reverence in the opening “Kyrie,” conveyed with solid diction and a tempo which did not slow down the mood which Mr. Crouch was setting for the entire Mass. Mr. Crouch built the intensity well, and it was clear from the outset that the emphasis in this performance would be on precision. Melodic figures in the chorus matched the instrumentalists perfectly, and Mr. Crouch had trained the singers to pay particular attention to articulation which allowed phrases to clear acoustically in the hall before the next phrase started. The tenor sectional sound was full and clear, while the alto sectional sound was rich. The basses provided a real foundation to the texture, and were especially clean in an exposed coloratura line in the “Et Resurrexit” section. Mr. Crouch likes his choral soprano sound lean, and throughout the performance, the top soprano sound never became muddied or fatigued. The dynamic contrasts and phrasing within the choral sections also eased the job for the singers and prevented the chorus from becoming too tired.

Mr. Crouch assembled an orchestral ensemble of period instruments for this performance, drawing from the best in the business. Two of the valveless trumpet players were members of the Canadian Brass, and continuo keyboardist Kerry Heimann ably switched back and forth between portatif organ and harpsichord. The orchestra was never overpowering; most effective was the “Crucifixus” movement, in which driving violin strokes replicated nails in the cross.

Each of the arias in this Mass is accompanied by an obbligato solo instrument, and the solo flute, violin, and paired oboes heard were consistently graceful and complementary to the voice being accompanied. In addition to concertmistress Ms. Roberts and oboist Mr. Burgess, solo flutist Anne Briggs appeared several times in the Mass, each time playing supple and flowing accompaniment on Baroque flute.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor was a challenging undertaking for the University Glee Club, but especially for the seniors, this was a tremendous way to close the season, and send the singers off for the summer (or their careers) with an appreciation of one of the great masters of choral music.