Pioneer Press Review: VocalEssence, Lyra Baroque express Bach’s majesty
By Rob Hubbard, Special to the Pioneer Press
J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is the musical equivalent of what Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Both tackle the nature of faith and examine the order of the universe from a distinctly Christian perspective.
One chief difference between the two masterpieces is that you have to go to Rome to see Michelangelo’s, while Bach’s is more portable. Yet, opportunities to hear the B-Minor Mass arrive too seldom, making this weekend’s VocalEssence performances especially inviting. Within the very warm sanctuary of Minneapolis’ St. Olaf Catholic Church, conductor Philip Brunelle led an interpretation Friday night that gave strong voice to the extremes of joy and sorrow found in the powerful piece.
But he also was determined to augment the music, so it was accompanied by 27 short films by Bastian Cleve that were projected onto either side of the ensemble. Raising the degree of difficulty for the performance was the decision to perform it with a period-instrument orchestra, Lyra Baroque, which caused the singers to paint in duskier hues and presented some challenges with intonation and tuning. But all was forgiven when the wooden flutes or oboes d’amore were caressing the melodies.
Yet this was a performance at which the chorus stole the show, especially when the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers wrapped their lovely voices around something as exhilarating as the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” that closed the first half or the grief-drenched “Et incarnatus.” Among the soloists, the standout arias came near evening’s end, when tenor James Taylor presented a gentle but forthright “Benedictus” as if affectionately extending a gift and alto Lisa Drew filled the “Agnus Dei” with sorrowful resignation.
As for Cleve’s films, they didn’t play a very prominent role, often appearing dim and indistinct against the exterior of the balcony. They were a collage of short interludes that rarely forged clear links to the text. But there was some nice imagery, including a soaring eagle above a mountain range and break dancers twisting their way through the “Et resurrexit.”
Who: The VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and Lyra Baroque Orchestra with conductor Philip Brunelle and vocal soloists
What: J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor with 27 short films by Bastian Cleve
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: St. Olaf Catholic Church, 215 Eighth St. S., Minneapolis
Tickets: $43.50-$13.50, available at 612-371-5656 or vocalessence.org
Capsule: Giving lovely voice to a masterwork.