The Ensemble review: Wall of Sound

Performance of Bach's b minor Mass offers ample virtuosity, insufficient vocal variety


Johann Sebastian Bach needs no introduction, but in any performance, his music needs to be carefully reawakened by means of a variety of articulation, dynamic contrasts and deliberate text inflection. More of these elements were needed at The Ensemble of Oregon performance of Bach’s b Minor Mass at First Presbyterian Church last Sunday. Nevertheless, the concert had many tasty moments.

Conductor Patrick McDonough had in place all the necessary elements for a first rate concert: a stellar cast of singers, a first-rate band of instrumentalists and his own considerable talents. The ten voice choir (out of which came the soloists), plus 19 instrumentalists comprised the total of the performance forces.

The choir, however, was often unable to create more than a formidable wall of sound, unrelentingly forte (loud), and with an absence of variety in articulations. Legato singing is a valuable commodity, but legato unrelieved by elements of martellato, staccato, even marcato, is like driving straight through Kansas. You get from point A to point B, but it’s not the most interesting trip.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach's Mass in b minor at Portland's First Presbyterian Church.

Patrick McDonough led The Ensemble and orchestra in JS Bach’s Mass in b minor at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Throughout the performance of some 130 minutes, it was not clear what factor disallowed differentiation of vocal lines: the hall itself (an unreverberant space engineered for the speaking, not the singing voice); the small choral forces pitted against the modern winds feeling the need to just sing out; lack of rehearsal time required to fine tune and add nuance. There was an attempt to alter texture through use of “one on a part” voicing in select movements. Perhaps this could have been tried in the strings.

Some choruses, such as the double choir “Sanctus,” were just the right weight and perfect tempo. In comparison, during the following “Hosanna,” the 8th notes of the orchestra tended to obliterate the 16ths of the choir. Generally, the most pleasurable choral moments were heard when only the continuo or a smaller instrumental component were accompanying. One problem with balance in Bach is that oftentimes the instruments are playing colla voce— that is, the very same part as the voices. And modern instruments will always win that contest.

Delightful, however, were the arias and duets which ranged from seemingly effortless to virtuosic. And the instrumentalists in those pieces were spectacular in their own solo passages. Sponsored at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church through the church’s Celebration Works Concert Series, the forces had enough room to be positioned strategically – as with the trumpets and timpani placement toward the back — and the resulting sound produced a satisfying orchestral balance.

Particularly compelling in the first half were Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers in the duet, “Christe Eleison”; Laurel Thoreson in the aria “Qui sedes ad dexteram”; and Tim O’Brien singing the “Quoniam tu solos sanctus,” joined by the the outstanding horn player, Mike Hettwer. Concertmaster Adam LaMotte was a crown jewel to Arwen Myers’ lovely “Laudamus Te.” To boot, a fine duet between van der Salm and Nicholas Ertsgaard adopted the French style (interpolating dotted notes where straight eights were written). Flutes Sarah Tiedemann and Emily Stanek were perfect.

The final movement of the Gloria “Cum sancto spiritu” was breathlessly fast, a brave tempo of which this vocal ensemble was marvelously capable. The audience was perched on the edge of the pews, enraptured.

In the second half (Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei), Mr. O’Brien again was vibrant and subtle in the aria “Et in Spiritum Sanctum.” Famously, Bach scored the aforementioned “Et in Spiritum…” in the baritone range and “Quonium” in the distinctly lower register; Mr. McDonough struck gold finding one artist who could do both.

The “Crucifixus,” the spiritual and musical apex of the work, stayed in the fast lane and lessened the initial jubilance of the following “Et Ressurexit.” Another sizzling tempo, however, resurrected the musical moment.

Also distinguishing themselves in the latter part of the oratorio were Mr.Ertsgaard, tenor, and again Laura Thoreson, billed as alto. Ertsgaard has an agile light voice, well suited for the “Benedictus.” (After the hefty choruses of the Sanctus and Osanna, Bach chose to assign the Benedictus and Agnus Dei to solo voices, a bit unusual, especially for the “Agnus.” )

Ms. Thoreson’s vocal work continues to dazzle. “Benedictus” again showed off the fabulous flute player Ms. Tiedemann, in addition to Mr. Ertsgaard’s well turned singing.

Mr. McDonough has a very good way with his choice of tempi, and the variation of said tempi was one of the very strong points of the afternoon: at times, very speedy, but still navigable by all, at other times contrastingly slow, but never lugubrious. His control of the total ensemble was also extraordinary; not a missed entrance or ragged cut off to be heard in this performance.

Summing up, this was a performance worth hearing, as The Ensemble’s shows usually are. More highlights could have been possible on this journey. The goal of the journey may not be just getting to the end.

 Alternative Approaches

This is the first of two major performances of Bach’s masterpiece in Oregon this season. On June 23, artistic director Matthew Halls will lead the Oregon Bach Festival’s first period instrument performance of the b minor mass at Baroque pitch. It will likely sound quite different from The Ensemble’s performance, in which Conductor McDonough chose to use contemporary instruments, combined with a smaller choir of “contemporary” voices.

Today’s Baroque and pre-Baroque conductors, choral or orchestral, are faced with several drastic choices between, basically, a performance that Bach (and his contemporaries) would have heard or one using today’s instruments and pitch. Either choice is capable of providing pleasure to the listener but certainly offer two vastly different panoplies of sound.

Matthew Halls conducts Portland Baroque Orchestra this weekend.

Matthew Halls will conduct a period instrument performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor at the Oregon Bach Festival in June.

Ever since the 1970s innovations of Nicolas Harnoncourt (and those of his his contemporary, Gustav Leonhardt), early music champion of the 20th century, and his ensemble, Concentus Musicus Wein, we have known about and had access to the idea of a Baroque “performance practice.” Harnoncourt’s performances offered a different, and probably more accurate template for the musical product. Baroque performance pitch, tuning, was more like A=415, roughly a half step lower than the tuning of our instruments today (A=440). (That is, Baroque musicians would call a sound that resonated at a frequency of 415 cycles per second “A major.”) That A=440 was decided upon at the International Standards Organization in 1953. Before that time, concert A (that is, the pitch musicians of a given ensemble would call A) could vary widely – in Monteverdi’s Venice (c. 1620), there existed at least 5 different “A”s, ranging from about 430 – 465. Mein Herz!

More strikingly, Harnoncourt was among the very first to use instruments that are different in construction and sound than those used for the past century and more. These “period instruments” include viola da gamba, viola da braccio, viola d’amore, and winds such as oboe de caccia and several others. One of the largest differences is in the brass family, where the clarini and d trumpets of Bach’s time were vastly different than our trumpets. (Nowadays, some use the Baroque trumpet, a mid-20th century invention intended to duplicate that “natural trumpet” used in the Baroque period.)

This writer experienced that very phenomenon, when some twenty years ago, Portland State University Summer Arts offered a B Minor Mass with some 12 singers and 15 instrumentalists, with a nod towards the “performance practice” idea. We did not at that time use A=415 for pitch, but we did use a small contingent of performers, and try to approximate the more Baroque sound, by using different means of bowing and articulation for the strings, and asking the trumpet players to insert tinfoil into the bells of their instruments. (It worked!)

Many conductors have followed in Harnoncourt’s steps: in Britain alone, Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, and Matthew Halls among many others  have embraced the use of Baroque performance practice for the music of Bach, Handel and others of their contemporaries. And this, dear readers, is what you’ll hear if you go to the OBF performance of the B minor Mass June 23 in Eugene.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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