The higher power of Bach at ARTS FIRST

by Simon de Carvalho '14

The Harvard University Choir and the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra will be gracing ARTS FIRST weekend with a performance of Bach's monumental Mass in B-Minor at 4 p.m. Sunday April 28, at Memorial Church. Admission is free!

The B-Minor Mass is a masterpiece of the form, and I spoke with Junior Choir Secretary for UChoir Adriana Pohl '14, who will also perform in the piece on Sunday, about Bach's Mass and the experience of performing something so massive.

Can you talk about the Mass as a genre of music? What makes Masses different stylistically from other formats, and what do you like about them?

The Mass is set to a text, which differentiates it from types of music that typically do not contain text, such as many symphonies, sonatas and concertos. And different from those types of works, the Mass is expressly intended to convey very specific messages. I think Mass settings are fascinating, because there are thousands of them set to an identical text, yet no two are the same. Each one has its back-story: Some are based on of Gregorian chant tunes, some are based off of popular songs of the day, some are quite jubilant, others rather melancholy, and they span all eras and styles of Western music. Each setting expresses the text differently. I think it’s also worth noting that composers of Mass settings had a higher power in mind (whether or not you believe in it). To take an example from architecture, imagine a Gothic cathedral,

with intricate designs, a light-filled interior, and those famous soaring ceilings. Gothic cathedrals represent the pinnacle of a striving for heaven, and were built to try to bring the worshippers closer to God. The builders just kept going until they physically couldn’t build any higher, until they couldn’t cram in any more stained glass windows, and in this way the Gothic cathedral represents a peak in architectural design. I think the Mass generally can be thought of this way, but the B-Minor Mass especially, with its intricacies, its luminosity and its sheer complexity represents the pinnacle of an art form, at least with regard to sacred music.

The Mass in B-Minor is often cited as one of the greatest compositions of the Baroque era. Why? What makes this thing so special?

Bach is obviously one of the best known and is regarded by many as one of the best composers of all time. I hope you’ll see the concert, and I’ll let you form your own opinions, but to say he was a great composer would be a vast understatement. So that gives you a baseline: This piece was written by one of the greatest composers of all time. But Bach wrote hundreds of compositions in his lifetime. The B-Minor Mass is very unusual in a number of respects, one being that Bach was associated with the Lutheran liturgy, and generally there would have been no call for a full Mass setting. It’s rather a mish-mash of styles, as well. Bach recycled some old compositions from various points in his career, as well as composing new movements. It’s packed with symbolism and artful word painting as well, and the sheer size and complexity of it are something to behold. I imagine that performing it – and hearing it performed – is a cathartic experience; rehearsing it surely is! It’s certainly a challenge, both technically and physically. We singers often wonder where we’re supposed to breathe. But somehow the ratio of satisfaction gained to difficulty endured is incredibly high.

Is there a specific moment or section of the Mass that is particularly exciting or challenging (or both!)?

There are many exciting and challenging moments! One of the most obvious is the transition from "Crucifixus" to "Et Resurrexit." The former is a very harrowing and emotional and setting of the text: "He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried." It ends on a low, quiet chord, then there is dead silence while the listeners contemplate this death and burial. Out of this silence, we come in with full orchestra, brass and timpani, practically screaming, "He is risen!" ("Et resurrexit!") It is challenging to make such a dramatic entrance without giving it away beforehand, but the effect is sublime. The culmination of the Mass, too, is a favorite section of mine. The last text we sing is "Dona nobis pacem" – "Grant us your peace." It begins quietly with a sort of slow fugue, but by the end the trumpet and timpani have joined us to make a poignant plea for peace on earth. There are many interesting and challenging moments in this piece, and I wish I could list them all. But I guess you’ll just have to show up to hear them.

Can you talk about the experience of performing some of these pieces that are considered among the greatest ever? As a musician and an art-maker, how do you relate to and work with a piece so formidable and make it your own?

UChoir performs both small- and large-scale choral works on a fairly frequent basis, but it’s been two years since we’ve done a piece that approaches the B-Minor Mass in terms of scale and fame, and that was Handel’s Messiah. With a piece like either of these, it’s undeniably a massive undertaking, especially for choristers who have never performed it before (myself in both cases). A piece of that size is intimidating, but on the other hand, you know that once you’ve performed it you will join the ranks of choristers around the world who have shared the experience. The other night I went to a performance of Messiah, the first time that I’ve seen it in fully performed since UChoir sang it, and I felt an incredible connection with the singers because I knew what it felt like to perform the piece, to sing each movement, and I had the sensation that we the listeners were embarking on a journey with the singers.

The B-Minor Mass was a lot of grunt work for the majority of the year, but within the last month or so it has really come together as a cohesive piece. I mentioned earlier that there is a lot of stylistic variance between movements, but I think Ed [Edward Jones, Choirmaster at Memorial Church and the conductor of this performance] has done a great job of seeing and interpreting the bigger picture, while still paying attention to details. And putting the choir and orchestra together is always a special treat, which comes right near the end of the preparation period. The Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra is a fantastic group of instrumentalists and we are blessed to be able to collaborate with them as often as we do. This long journey is winding down, and we’ve only got the final performance ahead of us now, which we all await with anticipation and excitement. As much work as it is to perform a piece like this one, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time.

[Caption: Adriana Pohl '14]