What piece of art changed your life? How did it affect you?
In the 40 years I’ve been a musician, I’ve had the chance to play and conduct music from all over the sonic map. I’ve played in rock bands. I was a lounge lizard. I’ve sung in professional choruses that did music written in 1400 and music written last week. I’ve conducted oratorios, operas, ballets, concertos, and symphonies. I love the music of W.A. Mozart, Paul Simon, G. F. Handel, Joni Mitchell, Benjamin Britten, John Coltrane, and hundreds of other composers who delight and amaze and inspire me.
But there’s nobody like Bach. And there’s no Bach like the Mass in B Minor. Since the 9th of September, my colleagues at Choral Arts and I have had the distinct pleasure of working our way through the Mass, as we prepare for a performance on October 27. It’s like being given a seven-week pass to hang out with the cool kids, with permission to sit with them at lunch. It’s winning the fantasy football league for singing geeks. The Mass in B Minor kicks ass. And we get to sing it, and marvel at it, and be challenged by it, and be gratified and energized and confounded by it until the Sunday before Halloween. We couldn’t be luckier.
It’s been 10 years since we had the chance to do this the last time, and we aren’t going to let this precious period pass unnoticed or unappreciated.
In the weeks before and after we perform the Mass, we’ll sing the music of Pink Floyd with Mobtown Moon, and we’ll provide a little color to The Planets with the BSO. But just like there are good pitchers and great pitchers, good doctors and great doctors, good cooks and great cooks, there is good music and great music. And the Mass in B Minor is, to my mind at least, the greatest music ever thought-up by a human.
I love me some Beethoven and some Brubeck and some Beatles. But Bach at his best is simply so overwhelmingly erudite, so emotionally charged, so incredibly powerful that it leaves me breathless. The intellectual achievement of the Mass in B Minor is such that although I learned this piece more than 30 years ago, there’s never an encounter with it that doesn’t include a revelation of some new twist, some brazen act of musical brilliance, or a charming little riff that while tucked into a mass of polyphony, stands on its own as a testament to the power of human invention.
Rehearsing the choruses of the B Minor Mass is an exercise in mental fortitude, vocal aerobics, and tenacity. The timorous need not apply. Bach’s command of the musical rhetoric of his own time, and of all time before that, is complete. One has no choice but to tip one’s hat, take a deep breath, and do what he says. (Exactly what he says, as complicated as doing that may be.)
In one moment, a forest of notes piles up into a mountain of asperities, only to resolve a moment later into a burst of triumphant regality and wonder. The heartbreaking dissonance that underpins the story of the crucifixion gives way to a dancing cascade of consonance that says, without doubt or irony, that optimism is possible, and that the world really isn’t half as bad as it looks. Bach was a believer, and he chose to make music that underscores his belief. But he was first and foremost an artist, and whether or not you accept his argument for belief, you can’t deny that he makes that argument as well as it has ever been made.
The chorus and I know that just being in the presence of this piece for these next few weeks is a privilege. We finish a day of working at our other jobs, and we convene in a nondescript room as the sun sets. We open our scores, and we dive in. And when we finish for the night, we’re struck by the realization that we’ve been placed in the rare proximity of adamantine greatness and wonder.
We emerge from these rehearsals into a world where people ascribe greatness to all sorts of things that aren’t. But we know that with this piece, we’ve been given the chance to hang with the real deal. Bach rocks. We’re amazed and astounded by him. We’re electrified, fully charged. But most of all, we’re grateful.
Tom Hall is the Music Director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the host of Choral Arts Classics and the Culture Editor on Maryland Morning on WYPR. The Choral Arts Chorus and Orchestra will perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor on Sunday, October 27th at 3:00 at Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College. Tom Hall and Ray Sprenkle will discuss the Mass on Choral Arts Classics on Tuesday, October 29 on WYPR at 9:00 PM. To catch me and Tom talking about the upcoming arts season, go here.