In Akron, Bach Becomes a Tribute to Notre Dame

United StatesUnited States Bach, Mass in B minor: Amanda Powell (soprano), Amanda Crider (mezzo-soprano), Jacob Perry (tenor), Jesse Blumberg (baritone), Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio, 15.4.2019. (MSJ)

The day that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned, Jeannette Sorrell dedicated this performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor to the people of France. It was a fitting gesture to honor one of humankind’s great spiritual artistic creations with another.

When artists truly get inside this mass, it comes to astonishing life. The problem with so many performances and recordings is that musicians all too often approach it with a faux gravitas which they hope will come across as reverence, but actually just shows intimidation.

Not so here.

Leave it to Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire to plunge past the baggage of a masterpiece’s cultural reputation and get to the real awe that animates its heart. The evening opened with a characteristic coup de théâtre: the chorus was brought in from the rear of the church along the side aisles. Before they stepped up to the stage, Sorrell began — the opening choral statement of the ‘Kyrie’ wrapping the audience on three sides. Only with the orchestral ritornello did the chorus take their place in the choir stalls.

The singers enunciated crisply, without crossing over the line into potentially disfiguring exaggeration. Instead, they found ways to understanding Bach’s emotions, as well as his compelling clarity of logic. Sorrell doesn’t just find the shape of phrases, she shades and weights the balance of chords and counterpoint, so that the harmony is always clearly leading forward.

Amanda Powell and Amanda Crider blended gorgeously in the ‘Christe eleison’. Powell unleashed more of her power for the ‘Laudamus te’, in tandem with Apollo’s Fire’s concertmaster, the brilliant Olivier Brault. Soaring passages alternated with intimate ones, such as ‘Domine Deus’, in which Powell and tenor Jacob Perry duetted with delicious lightness around Kathie Stewart’s luminous flute solo.

Baritone Jesse Blumberg brought an engaging grandeur to the ‘Quoniam to solus sanctus’ against a backdrop of Todd Williams’ amazing corno da caccia — the difficult authentic instrument, not a modern French horn. Blumberg scaled his voice back for the gentle ‘Et in Spiritum sanctum’, lit by the gorgeous pastels of the period double-reed instruments.

The most powerful moment came in the ‘Symbolum Nicenum’, where the piercing ‘Crucifixus’ was brought to a chilling close, followed by an elemental eruption of joy in the ‘Et resurrexit’. By the end, such wonders had been revealed that the complicated ‘Osanna repetatur’ earned its lofty richness. Doubly, it served as an appropriate close to the orchestra’s subscription season, which has been filled with triumphs.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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