Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the New York Choral Society and Orchestra under Music Director, David Hayes

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach


New York Choral Society and Orchestra
David Hayes, Conductor
Sarah Shafer, Soprano
Abigail Fischer, Soprano
James Reese, Tenor
Lee Poulis, Baritone

J. S. Bach – Mass in B Minor

The New York Choral Society, which has provided New Yorkers with a wonderful variety of mainstream and neglected choral works. Alongside Beethoven’s Ninth, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts, their recent programs have included Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus, Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion (New York premiere), Mendelssohn’s Paulus (St. Paul), and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Next season we have Tippet’s A Child of our Time, Finzi’s Requiem da Camera, Honegger’s Le roi David, and Randall Thompson’s Requiem to look forward to. One can only admire their comprehensive representation of the choral repertoire.

Earlier this month, The New York Choral Society, under the direction of their Music Director, David Hayes, presents something of a curiosity in this day and age, when a chorus of forty is considered a large one in the music of J. S. Bach: the Mass in B Minor sung by close to two hundred people with a sizable orchestra of modern instruments. I won’t quote here the profanity uttered by a friend of mine, a choral director, when I invited him to join me at this concert.

From the mass of sound that filled Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, it was clear from the opening ejaculations that Maestro Hayes has no interest whatsoever in historically informed performance, which, whether interpreted extremely, as in Joshua Rifkin’s edition of the Mass, or in a limited or hybrid way, as in the modern-instrument performances of the Bethlehem Bach Choir, the Cantata Singers, or Emmanuel Music in Boston, has provided invaluable insight into Bach’s music in all genres, and especially in his expansive, complex masterpiece. Hearing the massive choral forces resounding in the capacious hall, I couldn’t help wondering what it would sound like, if Hayes commissioned an updated orchestration, like the one of Handel’s Messiah Sir Eugene Goossens made for Sir Thomas Beecham in 1959, or Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions. But Hayes sensibly left the score that has come down to us alone, using a largish chamber orchestra, with eight first violins, if I remember correctly. It also emerged that Maestro Hayes knew what he was doing and could hear it as well. The larger, louder choral passages filled the hall in a way that was both characteristic of Carnegie’s splendid acoustic and also recalled that of a moderate-sized, moderately reverberant church. In quieter passages the chorus sang tightly enough to give the necessary clarity of texture its full value. In the louder, less exposed passages, the chorus was not always so clean, but I can’t recall any passage where I didn’t hear everything I was supposed to hear. The chorus and their director are to be complimented on their avoidance of muddy textures under challenging circumstances.

The tempi were varied, with a general tendency to sweep ahead in the full, faster passages, unfolding the arc of the movements in a single grand gesture built on longer phrasal units. Occasionally, however, Maestro Hayes distracted us with mannered phrasing and odd staccatos.

I enjoyed this performance much more than I expected. My greatest disappointment was in the soloists, who sang their parts and phrased competently enough, but lacked the vocal dimensions and presence to cut through the orchestra and chorus. Their voices also lacked vocal color of any distinction or interest.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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