"It's kind of his Mona Lisa," says Brent Baldwin of Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor. Panoramic Voices' artistic director and conductor suggests the work possesses an indefinable perfection. It is neither a pure artistic statement nor a strictly religious one, yet achieves a supremacy of art and spirituality. Bach crafted his Mass from his huge catalog of musical compositions, written over decades in every possible style and from which he selected the component parts to fabricate an enormous work – his greatest hits meets high-concept – with every movement a triumph. As sung by the hundred-plus chorus and soloists of Panoramic Voices, accompanied by an outstanding 30-piece orchestra, Bach's masterwork was brought lovingly to life in a full evening of song that flew by.
Bach's Mass ebbs and flows in its voluminousness and intimacy, and the contrasts, movement to movement, can take the breath away. Consider the transitions from the opening "Kyrie," with the full chorus in rising, lilting voice, to the "Christe," a pleasant duet featuring soprano soloists Gitanjali Mathur and Meredith Ruduski, followed, in turn, by the rousing men's voices that introduced a second full-choral "Kyrie." Or a coquettish "Laudamus te," sung by Ruduski accompanied by concert master Stephen Redfield's vivacious solo violin and Austin Haller's prim harpsichord, before the exhilarating, swelling voices of the chorus returned in the "Gratias agimus tibi."
Standout performances included bass soloist Tim O'Brien's aria "Quoniam tu solus sanctus," with Tom Hale lending a hunting-lodge air on the horn, and O'Brien's "Et in Spiritum Sanctum," where he was backed by a trio of double-reeds in a gem from the dramatic "Credo" section at the heart of the Mass. Tenor Trevor Shaw gave us a sweet "Benedictus," featuring Adrienne Inglis on flute – she was the evening's stellar soloist, who did double duty singing with the chorus – and a rhythmic cello underpinning a musical line that seemed to flirt with Bach's melodic "Air on the G String." Alto soloist Laura Mercado-Wright sang the "Agnus Dei" with pathos and warmth before the entire ensemble brought the work to its gentle, powerful conclusion.
Panoramic Voices has also been the proving ground for composers of the modern era, and Saturday's concert opened with a commission befitting our contentious times. Joel Love, late of the University of Texas, composed The Elephant in the Dark as a companion piece to Bach's Mass. Sufi mystic Rumi lent the title for what was an intriguing investigation of perspectives, and a multicultural exhortation that we honestly, openly listen to one another. The striking introduction of flute and brass (the elephant!) slid into a brief discordant buzz of rough sounds and sharp whispers, out of which the majestic voice of soloist Hadeel Mujarkesh rang with a selection from the Quran, followed by Hebrew, Hindi, and Bahá'í texts sung by the four other soloists.
The overall feeling of Bach's Mass is of pure uplift; rousing to sing, delightful to hear. For that, and Love's Elephant, Baldwin and Panoramic Voices gave the audience a performance that was a joy to experience.
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