All over again

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  January 28, 2010

One of my favorite moments in Emmanuel Music’s Bach B-minor Mass, the culmination of its Bach year, was non-musical. Two long-time Emmanuelites and old friends, soprano Jayne West and tenor Frank Kelley, came front and center for their joyful duet, “Domine Deus,” and smiled beatifically at each other, happy to be singing together and singing this. One of the great legacies left by the late Craig Smith from his 30 years as Emmanuel’s music director is this loving community of lovable musicians.

The B-minor Mass was one of the few pieces that ever gave Smith trouble. But with most of the same singers and players under the sure and knowing hand of his friend composer (and now acting artistic director of Emmanuel Music) John Harbison, the current performance got everything right. One of Bach’s last testaments (it was written piecemeal over a period of some 35 years, and he never heard it complete), it embraces profound solemnity and profound joy, which is exactly what Harbison captured.

Particularly lively, exhilarating tempos gave the Mass its joy, with Paul Perfetti’s trumpet the perfect voice of celebration. Broader tempos gave the Sanctus enormous amplitude. Nothing small-scale or niggling about this performance. And the solemnity was equally heartfelt, from the awesome mystery of the incarnation (one of Bach’s very last pieces, with its repeated descending phrases that, Harbison writes, introduced a new way of writing melody — not by actual notes but by shape) to the agony of the crucifixion to the fervent prayers for mercy. It ended with mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal’s “Agnus Dei,” the final repeat delivered in a breathtaking almost-whisper.

The vocal soloists, who made up a large part of the chorus, were all eloquent: sopranos West, Gail Abbey, Susan Trout, Susan Consoli, Kendra Colton (especially luminous in her “Laudamus te”); mezzos Dellal and Miranda Loud; tenors Kelley and Jason McStoots (in the lovely “Benedictus”); and baritones David Kravitz (delivering a powerful “Quoniam”) and Donald Wilkinson (turning the dry words about “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” as Bach must have wanted him to, into dancing rhymes). Emmanuel’s chorus has a different, leaner sound from the one it had years ago when it included such eminent members as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Susan Larson. This one sang Bach’s five-part voicings with phenomenal focus and clarity.

So too, the orchestra — including concertmaster Danielle Maddon, Jacqueline DeVoe (flute), Peggy Pearson (oboe), Thomas Stephenson (bassoon), Richard Menaul (horn), Thomas Van Dyck (bass), Craig McNutt (timpani), and Peter Sykes (organ) — sang with a single voice. The B-minor Mass is one of the most magnificent religious documents in Western culture. You didn’t have to be religious to feel the spirit at Emmanuel.

All season long, the Cantata Singers have been revealing that there’s more to Kurt Weill than “Mack the Knife.” But at last in a program called “In Berlin, On Broadway: A Kurt Weill Cabaret” (at Newton’s Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center), music director Alison Voth and stage director Lynn Torgove offered up the irresistible theater music that’s made so many people love Weill. A splendid group of singers from the Cantata Singers chorus, looking stylish in ’30s garb (women’s hats and men’s fedoras, boas, suspenders), and now happily individualized, sailed through Torgove’s imaginative staging.

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