Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Eternity - Bach Mass in B Minor

St. Catharines FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Interior; photo by Bob Magee

"Eternity" might be a lofty aspiration for any of the performing arts but the poet Robert Browning reminds us, "Ah but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

Robert Cooper, Artistic Director and maestro for Chorus Niagara seemed up to the task this evening, aided by the combined forces of the Niagara and Toronto's Orpheus choirs and the Talisker Players orchestra along with five solid soloists - Jennifer Krabbe, soprano, Maeve Palmer, soprano, Charles Sy, tenor, Geoffrey Sirett, baritone and mezzo-soprano Marjorie Maltais who capably subbed for the ailing Anita Krause.

Cooper's credentials speak for themselves. He is regarded as one of Canada's foremost choral musicians as Artistic Director of the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, Chorus Niagara, the Opera in Concert Chorus and the newly created Ontario Male Chorus. He has taught at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto and has had the honour of conducting the National Youth Choir of Canada, the Ontario Youth Choir (1979, 2007) and a Celebration of Canadian Choral Music at Carnegie Hall. As a superb choral trainer and conductor, he has provided strong artistic mentoring to singing youth in the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir as well as the Orpheus Choir Sidgwick Scholars Program, influencing over 2000 young adult singers. In addition to many other honours, he was awarded the Order of Canada.

Chorus Niagara

For this, the inaugural concert of Chorus Niagara in Partridge Hall, Cooper's animated and often passionate pre-performance talk, aided by two musicians helped to explain Bach's genius and greatly enhanced one's appreciation of the ensuing music. Another wonderful source of enrichment was the detailed program notes by Marian Van Til (see below), an alto in the chorus.

Unfortunately, for me there were two problems. First, the stage was so packed that the five soloists were sequestered behind the musicians, almost merged with the chorus and out of my sight. Soloists should be front and center.

Next, the 27-part film, playing on a giant screen center stage was both intrusive and annoying. When I listen to great music, I focus intently on the sound and inevitably I create my own imagery. Slowly, the cerebral synapses occur and something always emerges from the depths. I don't want somebody else messing with this chemistry. That's the appeal of the performing arts. Each person in the audience arrives and augments the players on stage with his or her own appreciation - which should not be manufactured for us but rather by us - producing a synergy that is often palpable and exciting, performer and audience feeding off one another.

What was great fun was to watch Cooper as maestro, his smooth, quick hands skillfully carving notes in the air, his body language expressing fervor, enthusiasm and a deep love of his craft.

In the notes, Karen Toppila, Chair of Chorus Niagara's Board, suggests that Chorus Niagara has come a long way from the "Hallelujah Flash Mob" scenario at Welland's Seaway Mall which now boasts over 47 million You Tube hits. She cites Cooper's 27 years devoted to the Chorus, "his driving force, energy and enthusiasm" which "stir us to new heights and inspire us all to perceive choral music as one commensurate with all the arts, be it symphony, theatre, dance, or opera." She singles out accompanist Ms. Lynne Honsberger "who brings her exceptional musical talent and clever humour to the forefront." On the administrative side, she concludes that we "are privileged to have as our Managing Director, the incomparable Ms. Diana McAdorey, who is the epitome of inexhaustible organizational proficiency, boundless perceptive direction and outstanding creative leadership."

High accolades indeed, and Niagara residents, especially those in St. Catharines, have reason to be optimistic about performing arts in our region, particularly with Chorus Niagara under Robert Cooper as one of its prime assets.

Chorus Niagara

Program Notes by Marian Van Til

Johann Sebastian Bach Mass in B Minor
Born in Eisenach, central Germany, in the same year as Handel and Scarlatti, Johann Sebastian Bach {1685-1750} came from a family of generations of music makers active in both their Lutheran churches and the surrounding towns. Fine musicians, all; but none had Johann Sebastian's superb gift or lasting impact.

The compilation of the B Minor Mass came near the end of Bach's life. It is seen as the culmination of his choral work in its variety of styles, range of sonorities, intricate harmonic-melodic-rhythmic devices - similar to how The Art of the Fugue summarizes Bach's immense contribution to counterpoint. This Mass has rightly been called the greatest choral work of all time. From Robert Cooper's pre-concert chat, the following notes, and hearing the Mass, you may begin to see why.

One speaks of the "compilation of" the B Minor Mass because Bach did not initially compose it as one work. Part dates from a 1724 Christmas Day "Sanctus"; other parts come from the Dresden Mass and cantata arias and choruses. Then, in 1749, when Bach was blind and ailing the year before he died, he wrote, self-borrowed, re-wrote and compiled the sections of the Mass into the profound work you will hear tonight. Embedded with symbolism, it is integrally woven textually and musically into one great work with singleness of purpose. Bach gave such coherent shape to these disparate pieces and movements that the result is an utterly satisfying whole whose musical, emotional and spiritual impact is massive, and unique in music history.

Chorus Niagara with Robert Cooper

It is notable that Bach himself never conducted or heard the entire work, and likely suspected all along that he would not. His son C.P.E., who inherited the manuscripts, performed the Mass's Symbolum Nicenum in 1786 at a Hamburg charity concert. And C.P.E. clearly allowed numerous scholars, composers and collectors access to the manuscripts. Haydn, among other notables, got a copy. Beethoven twice attempted to get one. Beethoven summed up what all the great composers felt about Bach's musical influence: "Not Bach {which means "brook"}, but Meer {"sea"} should be his name!" Yet it wasn't until 1859 that an attested public performance of the entire Mass took place. More astonishing, the first detailed analysis of the work didn't occur until 1937 with Sir Donald Tovey's critique in Essays in Musical Analysis.

When Martin Luther broke from the Roman church (1517), music became a cornerstone of Lutheran worship {Luther himself was a competent musician/chorale writer}. Music was prized as a gift from God and strong emphasis was placed on congregational singing {thus Bach's hundreds of chorale-based cantatas}. Bach was a devout Lutheran who lived his faith. His extant Bible is heavily annotated, obviously much studied. He often wrote "J.J." for Jesu juva ("Jesus, help me") in manuscript margins and ended every work, for church or court, with a kind of second signature: "s.d.g.,": soli Deo gloria (''for the glory of God alone").

The Lutheran Sunday morning Hauptgottesdienstwas an evangelical adaptation of the structure and content of the Catholic Mass. For theological reasons, it retained much, but not all of, the Mass "Ordinary" (the part which remains constant throughout the year). The Catholic Ordinary had five major parts: Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy"); Gloria ("Glory to God"); Credo ("I believe ... "); Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy") and Benedictus ("Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord"); Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God").

Bach did write one short Catholic Mass and several small Lutheran Masses. The Lutheran liturgy in Leipzig (where he spent the last 27 years of his life providing music for four congregations) used only the first three parts of the Catholic Mass. Yet the Mass in B Minor expands on that.

Bach's devotion does not explain the enduring puzzle of this work. Why would a serious Lutheran compose a two-hour-long Mass, more Catholic than Lutheran, yet one that wouldn't have comfortably fit into either church's liturgy? What did he intend? Those questions have not been definitively answered two-and-a-half centuries later.

As is the case with much Baroque choral music, the B Minor Mass is frequently orchestral in conception. Even so, Bach emphasizes text words or phrases by using symbolism, word painting and "idea painting." In the Credo duet "Et in unum dominum," for example, the two voices weave seamlessly, in imitation, in unison, to depict the "one Lord" of the text, and the unity of the Father and the Son.

Bach also uses an ancient technique called gematria (numerology) in which letters of the alphabet are assigned numerical values. This allows him to give meaning to intervals, or to the number of notes in a melody, or even in a whole movement, making symbolic references to specific biblical words or even doctrines. In strategic spots he inserts a musical "sign of the cross," as in the first notes of the fugue which begins the second Kyrie (the cross formed by notes 1,3 and 2,4 - the Greek cross or chiasmus, which is also the first letter of the name of Christ in Greek). That fugal subject also comprises 14 notes, the sum of the letters of Bach's name (B,A,C,H: 2,1,3,8 = 14) - unhearable to listeners, yet Bach's own deeply embedded personal plea for mercy. When Bach sets his own name into the music using the notes B-flat, A, C and B-natural (H in old German notation) he does it not with hubris but humility, to gratefully include himself in the faith being unfolded, which was of utmost importance to him.

The B Minor Mass has four over-arching sections: Missa; Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed); Sanctus; and a fourth part which itself consists of four movements: Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis pacem.

The Missa consists of the Kyrie and Gloria. Following liturgical practice, the Kyrie has three parts: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. The outer two are sung by the chorus while the middle is a duet for two sopranos.

The Gloria is divided into nine movements (the Trinity times three). The text, which goes back as far as the second or third century, begins with the words the angels sang when they announced Jesus' birth to the shepherds, and continues with extended praise and adoration of Christ. The center movement is a soprano-tenor duet ("Domine Deus"). It is flanked on both sides by choruses, then by arias. The outer movements are five-part choruses - of which there are seven in the whole Mass. Seven and five are both numbers of symbolic significance to Bach, seven being the biblical number of perfection, five alluding to the traditional five wounds of Christ.

These outer Gloria choruses both exhibit what was for Bach's time the very modern Italian concertante style. The first Gloria chorus provides great contrast to the opening weighty, introspective Kyrie. It is a Baroque dance (in 3/8 time) in D Major, the key associated with festivity and royalty - wholly appropriate for the angels' announcement of the birth of the newborn King. In the final Gloria chorus ("Cum Sancto Spiritu") you'll hear something unusual in our performance: the soloists will participate. The chorus and combined soloists alternate, creating a "ripieno-concerto" effect, i.e., large group (the chorus - "full orchestra," so to speak). and small group (the soloists) alternating. Next comes the musical-spiritual heart of Bach's Mass: the Symbolum Nicenum (the Nicene Creed, adopted by the church in 325, thus for centuries fundamental to Christian belief and worship). Bach divides the ancient creed into nine movements (Trinity times three, again). Scholars have noted that the Credo is "a superlative example of Bach's concern with symmetry."

Central to those nine movements for Bach, musically and theologically, is the Crucifixus ("He was crucified also for us ... died and was buried). It is the center of the trinity of choral movements concerning Christ's incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Flanking it are a duet and solo, while the outer movements are five-part choruses. "Credo in unum deum" ("I believe in one God") is confessed in an old style (stile antico) church fugue into which Bach incorporates an even older Gregorian chant associated with that text, bringing it into his modern world. By doing so he is alluding to both the long tradition and timelessness of the faith he confessed. To end the creed ("Confiteor" - "I believe in one baptism") Bach again begins with a stile antico fugue. But at the words "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum" ("I expect the resurrection of the deed"], Bach abruptly changes style and tempo: a joyous Vivace e Allegro in the Italian concertante style erupts, complete with festive trumpets and drums.

The third main Mass section, the Sanctus, has just one monumental movement, written for six-part chorus (SSAATB). Beginning the final four-movement section is Osanna, for two SATB choirs. The tenor then sings the soothing, contemplative Benedictus, with a flute meanwhile interweaving its own melody. The sparsely accompanied alto solo Agnus Dei is full of simultaneous yearning and sorrow, yet profound comfort.

After that, only one more thing need be said: Dona nobis pacem: "Grant us peace." To end this towering work Bach reverts to another stile antico fugue (four-parts this time). Musically it is a repetition of Gratias agimus tibi ("We give thanks to you") from the Gloria. No doubt Bach meant listeners to recall that text and mentally overlay it onto Dona nobis pacem. His reversion to this older church-fugue style is his final musical allusion to the ancient and enduring nature of the faith he confessed with the church throughout the ages.

About the films accompanying the Mass:
Over many years, German filmmaker Bastian Cleve conceived 27 short, dialogue-free films, "The Sound of Eternity," based on the 27-part structure of the Mass, to run simultaneously with the performance of it. Opening with the birth of Bach and paintings from his time, Cleve's images also lead the listener-viewer through alpine mountains, glaciers, peaceful valleys and pulsating modern cities.

Cleve admits that this great Mass doesn't need his films. But his reasoning for making them will resonate with many: "For me personally, the Mass in B Minor is an incredibly inspiring, reflective, euphoric and jubilant experience, almost as if, far from a single person's destiny, a door opens into heaven. Out of this breathtaking experience the individual films have been created. The vision behind the film is to let the audience take inspiration through their ears and eyes, leaving them contentedly carried away, feeling fulfilled and complete, and - one hopes - to keep this happiness for a little while."

Robert Cooper

Lobby, St. Catharines FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Interior; photo by Bob Magee

St. Catharines FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre photo by Lauren Garbutt

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