Star Tribune Review: Bach’s B Minor Mass needs no adornment
VocalEssence’s thrilling reading was paired with filmmaker Bastian Cleve’s life’s work, a mixed blessing.
Updated: April 10, 2011 – 6:00 PM
In our increasingly media-dominated world, classical musicians are
increasingly trying to find new ways to engage this audience. The new
Gehry Concert Hall in Miami was designed with projection screens. This
weekend, VocalEssence took up that challenge with its performance of
Bach’s B Minor Mass at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis.
Bach assembled his Mass in the last year of his life. It stands as
his final and ultimate statement on vocal and liturgical music.
German filmmaker Bastian Cleve was inspired by this music to spend 25
years creating 27 short films to accompany Bach’s 27 movements. It is
an amazing achievement, if something of a mixed blessing.
In the opening statement of the Kyrie, the longest movement, Cleve
articulates his style: juxtaposing wildly diverse images, from the
cosmos to Bach’s birth to pastoral scenes from his time to pilgrims from
different eras crossing a desert.
There were some striking moments. In the Gloria, the ruin of an
ancient cloister was magically rebuilt, as if that would be the result
of “peace, goodwill to men.” And in the Qui tollis, a blazing inferno
turns into a living bush at “receive our prayer.”
But I found myself frequently closing my eyes. The music itself is so
rich and stimulating that the panoply of images created sensory
The VocalEssence performance deserved to be savored. Conductor Philip
Brunelle led a stately reading, frequently running longer than the
film. But it played as a deeply felt statement of personal spirituality.
The movement from Crucifixus (“crucified”) to Et resurrexit (“rose
again”) took my breath away.
The 40-voiced Ensemble Singers sang with utmost clarity and
precision, each section blending into a satisfying whole. They also sang
with a passion that was inspiring. The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) was
a glorious celebration.
But the droning sound of the Lyra Baroque Orchestra frequently muddied the aural landscape.
Of the vocal soloists, it was the women who excelled. Maria Jette’s
crystalline soprano soared thrillingly and was ideally paired with Lisa
Drew’s warm, plummy alto.
James Taylor brought an appealing lyric tenor, but a straining for
effect often marred his performance. Bass Aaron Larson had an amazing
facility for coloratura, but was underpowered.
This was a celebration of Bach’s music that could be enjoyed on many levels.