By John von Rhein
Johann Sebastian Bach's music is ever with us and, indeed, was much in evidence over the weekend in Chicago, what with Bach Week Festival performances at North Park University and at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, all of them involving ensembles of modern instruments.
But the relatively rare chance to hear Bach's Mass in B minor done with a chamber orchestra of period instruments and correspondingly reduced choral forces lured me to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago on Saturday night to catch this monument of Western sacred music as performed by the Rockefeller Chapel Choir and Orchestra under James Kallembach's direction. It turned out to be a pilgrimage well worth undertaking.
The performance, which concluded the fourth Quire & Place season of the chorus and its 10-voice professional choir component, the Decani, showed what can be gained when a superior team of well-rehearsed musicians and a discerning adherence to period practice come together in an appropriate setting. A masterpiece that celebrates the risen Christ and the enduring power of Christian faith proved to be uncommonly moving: grand edifice, intimate expressivity.
Kallembach's use of a chorus of 30 voices and an orchestra of 24 players felt right for an interior whose richly reverberant acoustics need to be treated carefully. The interweaving choral lines and solid contributions of the solo singers came through clearly over the orchestra; larger forces would simply have muddied the textures.
Bach left many performance decisions to the taste and discretion of the conductor. Kallembach's primary departure from modern tradition was dividing a number of passages in a handful of choruses between concertists (soloists or semi-chorus) and ripienists (the full body of singers). This provided not only striking musical contrasts but also conveyed a sense of individual believers sparking fervent responses from the community.
A first-rate choral conductor and choral scholar, Kallembach further aligned his B minor Mass with tenets of German baroque style by encouraging crisp articulations and a fluid sense of musical communication within the orchestra and among the continuo and obbligato players. There were uniformly fine contributions from Jeri-Lou Zike, concertmaster; Craig Trompeter, cello; Jerry Fuller, double bass; Darlene Drew, flute; Deb Stevenson, oboe; Anne Bach, oboe d'amore; Jonathan Saylor, bassoon; Dave Immon, trumpet; Fritz Foss, horn; and Thomas Weisflog, organ.
The choral singing was similarly disciplined and stylish, secure of intonation and balance, lucid of Latin enunciation. There's no doubt that Kallembach's employment of skilled professional singers within the larger chorus of student singers has benefited the overall level of performance immeasurably. Heard on this scale, the harmonic strangeness of the "Et incarnatus est" section and the following "Crucifixus" emerged that much more vividly.
The vocal soloists, drawn from the choral ranks as was the practice in Bach's time, also were very good, almost without exception.
For me, the discovery was Reginald Mobley, a young countertenor destined to make his mark in the early music world. He delivered both of the alto arias and his portion of the soprano-alto aria with a beautiful, smoothly produced sound, ornamenting the melodic lines boldly and exactly.
Sopranos Kaitlin Foley and Lindsey Adams blended their dulcet tones wonderfully well in the "Christe eleison" aria, and Adams gave a luscious accounting of the "Laudamus te," matching her soaring line to Zike's florid violin obbligato. Matthew Dean's firm vocalism, beautiful timbre and close attention to word meanings made the tenor's "Benedictus" a stirring declaration of belief.
A repeat performance was due to be given Sunday afternoon at Chicago's St. Josephat Parish.
Quire & Place's fifth season will include performances of Bach's "St. John Passion," a program of Jewish sacred choral works, music of Shakespeare's time and Kallembach's own "John Passion."
Orginally published in the Chicago Tribune on May 3, 2015.