Monday, August 8, 2016

BWV 232: The Apotheosis of Abstraction

Every summer the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival & Academy presents two performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting of the Mass text, usually called the “Mass in B minor,” since much of the tonality of the entire score is in B minor and its relative major key, D major. For this year’s programming, the first of those performances was given last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. As has often been the case in the past, it provided the first major platform for the Academy students, who performed all of the vocal solos and who comprised almost all of the instrumental ensemble (called the American Bach Soloists Academy Orchestra). However, because there is a limited number of vocal students, the choral work was taken by the members of the American Bach Choir. As always, all resources were conducted by ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas.

As the Wikipedia page for this composition observes, why the Lutheran Bach should devote the year before his death to providing an extended setting of the complete Ordinary of the Latin Mass is “a matter of scholarly debate.” Depending on whether or not time is set aside for an intermission, a performance of the entire score tends to run between two and two and one-half hours. The composition is almost always presented as a concert occasion, rather than being incorporated into a liturgical service. Does this constitute an “authentic” approach to performance?

When he was not busy providing new music for either royal patrons or church services, Bach had a serious interest in pedagogy. This may well have begun when he committed himself to providing his first two sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, with a solid foundation of music education. From those early days until the end of his life, Bach would produce large bodies of music, primarily instrumental, whose pedagogical value is frequently overlooked by those more interested in concerts and recitals. Towards the end of his life, it seems as if Bach was looking back on all that he achieved and trying to account for it through what might be called “summary exercises.” This is one way, for example, that both performer and listener may approach the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier; and it is probably also the case with the BWV 1080 The Art of Fugue, whose completion was interrupted by Bach’s death.

In a similar manner one could easily view BWV 232 as a retrospective compilation of remembrances of compositions past, so to speak. Indeed, much of BWV 232 involves repurposing earlier compositions going all the way back to his time in Weimar in 1714 (which would have been around the time he was working on the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier). From that point of view, BWV 232 can be approached as an “abstract” (rather than “sacred”) compilation of vocal music consisting of choruses, arias, and duets. Furthermore, the choral movements may almost be viewed as a “preliminary study” for BWV 1080. There is a heavy emphasis on fugal writing; and, throughout all of the choral movements in BWV 232, homophony is kept to a minimum. Equally interesting is that none of the arias and duets structure the vocal line in da capo form. Repetition of the opening section in the conclusion is kept to the instrumental ritornello sections, although one would never confuse the vocal parts with those for concerto solos. Taken as a whole, one might call BWV 232 a summa that is far from a theological one!

From that point of view, one can appreciate why the ABS Festival & Academy has made it a point to revisit BWV 232 every summer. Every year another crop of students becomes actively involved in this one composition that says so much about so many of Bach accomplishments. Furthermore, as a conductor, Thomas has a keen sense of how to work with the resources at his disposal, rather than try to cram them into a single cookie-cutter “vision” of what BWV 232 “ought to be.” The result is that, from the audience side, every summer’s performance of BWV 232 has a freshness to it that comes from yet another source of young talents bringing their own perspectives to Bach’s music.

That freshness was always on display last night. Indeed, it extended beyond the contributions of the students. Many of the stretto passages in the choral fugue movements have never previously been more electrifying. Among the students, both vocalists and instrumentals brought a solid command of in-the-moment music-making to their respective executions. These frequently involved elaborate interplay among many different combinations of vocal ranges and instruments; and each instance opened its own door of insights into how exciting well-honed performance practices can be. One could almost imagine that all of those students were, in some remote way, enjoying the same benefits of pedagogical authority that had shaped Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach into the major music figure he would become.

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