The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Mass in B-minor on Thursday night in Symphony Hall, led by ASO Music Director Robert Spano. The vocal soloists were soprano Celena Shafer, mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabó, countertenor James Laing, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Stephen Powell. Norman Mackenzie, the ASO’s director of choruses, prepared the chamber chorus for the performance.
The orchestra had not performed the entire Bach Mass since Robert Shaw conducted it in a subscription concert in spring 1998, less than a year before his death. In 1990, a recording by the ASO and chorus with Shaw was released by Telarc Records. This week’s performances are dedicated to Shaw’s longtime beloved contralto soloist, Florence Kopleff, who died last year.
In this concert there was an intermission rather than an attempt to perform the entire piece straight through. The “Kyrie” and “Gloria” sections, completed in the summer of 1733, made up the first half, and the remainder, assembled by Bach during the final years before his death, formed the second.
Spano conducted the entire work without a baton, preferring to let his hands convey detail and expression to the chorus and orchestra. In the first half, there were too many uncomfortable moments where the ensemble did not feel entirely tight, whether the discrepancies were from the front of the stage to the back, or occasionally from side to side — the exceptions being the opening “Kyrie” and the final “Cum sancto spiritu.” This changed completely in the concert’s second half. The assembled forces achieved a consistent feeling of being in sync, and that increased sense of assurance was visible in Spano’s hand gestures.
Bach wrote instrumental solo parts which intertwined with the vocal solos as equal partners. Of particular note were the horn solo by Brice Andrus that accompanied Powell in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” in the first half and the completely spot-on playing between flutist Christina Smith at the back of the orchestra and continuo cellist Christopher Rex at the front and organist Peter Marshall between, all underpinning Cooley’s rendition of “Benedictus qui venit” in the second half.
The vocal soloists themselves all did good work, but among them the highlight of the evening was countertenor Laing, whose bright and British-trained rendering of the alto solos stole the show, and the ovations reflected that. The audience also recognized the three trumpeters with raised levels of applause: David Vibderheide, Michael Tiscione and Karen Bliznik, who all played “piccolo trumpets” in parts that went as high as the instrument’s 18th harmonic, according to an enthusiastic amateur trumpeter in the audience. The chamber chorus was given a special resounding ovation as well. In total, all of the assembled forces won audience approval.
This is yet another two-concert week for the ASO, with the remaining one tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m.