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MSO: Bach's Mass in B Minor

J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Symphony Chorus
Joyce Andrews, soprano
Karen Brunssen, alto
Frank Hoffmeister, tenor
John Shuffle, bass
Roland Johnson, conductor


The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus joined forces under the baton of Roland Johnson at the Oscar Mayer Theatre Saturday evening to perform a single work, Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. It's not a work for the faint of heart, for it's no small undertaking to realize tonal structures of such all-encompassing dimension. There is nothing even remotely like it in the entire remaining body of musical compositions. It seems clear that Bach was talking directly to God, for few religious composers -- and perhaps no other single work -- offers such humbleness and piety in the same breath as it proclaims such grand devotion and glory. It is rare to hear it in live performance; I recall only two other occasions, both at the University's Music School, in the 36 years I've been in Madison. A near sell-out audience was on hand for this performance, and quite apart from any religious aspect of the evening, I'd say they must have gone away satisfied and uplifted. I did.

The chorus, about 130 voices, is for the most part amateurs (in the root sense -- they clearly loved what they were doing). The Mass in B Minor is surely one of the most difficult of all choral compositions to perform well, featuring extraordinarily long and complex contrapuntal lines, tricky Baroque rhythms, and some simply amazing harmonies. There were a few problems here and there, but the chorus was very good, and, frankly, much better than I expected.

The four soloists comprised soprano Joyce Andrews, alto Karen Brunssen, tenor Frank Hoffmeister, and bass John Shuffle. Here too, it's hardly possible to overstate the technical difficulties they all face in the course of rendering such a work. The performance of each had moments of great beauty, though Andrews occasionally wavered as to pitch. In terms of sheer loveliness of voice, I found the tenor (the smallest of the four parts) the most engaging.

The orchestra's role in all this is hardly insignificant. Although the band was fairly large, with both organ and harpsichord continuo, there was in much of the playing an intimacy one associates with chamber music, especially in solos involving violin and oboe d'amore. When it comes to massive, full-orchestra sound, the roll of tympani and above all the soaring trumpets really do invoke images of Heaven. It was all very fine, but up in the musical stratosphere, the clarino trumpet of John Aley is still sending chills up and down my spine. He is, quite simply, The Best.

Like all very large works, Bach's Mass is an enormous challenge to a conductor. Johnson was in firm control throughout, and made a very personal statement, I felt, at the same time as he realized the exalted scale of the work as a whole. Work is the operative word, too; this is a long piece, demanding enormous energies from all involved, requiring a virtually superhuman attention to detail. I think Johnson can add the word "triumph" to the list of his accomplishments without boasting too much now. Bravo!

Isthmus, March, 1992
Copyright 1992 Jess Anderson

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