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INTERVIEW: Back to the B Minor Mass: The Bach Society of Minnesota’s Centerpiece

The Bach Society of Minnesota’s Artistic Director Matthias Maute conducts a performance of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis in 2021.

Rock musicians have a notoriously short average lifespan (43.6 years). The average non-profit performing arts organization’s lifespan is even shorter. Most are lucky to make it past a decade before a founders’ split, succession crisis, or economic recession does them in. This means that the Bach Society of Minnesota – turning 90 this year – has a lot to celebrate.

For its 90th Festival Season, BSM features an arc of performances whose titles – out of context – could describe a crazy relationship journey. April saw the Legends & Lies concerts, which spent a winter exile with a February tour to Bemidji and Duluth, then returned to the Twin Cities with the spring melt in April. After breaking up with Cantus (its temporary Legends & Lies partner), BSM jumped into its Joyful Baroque rebound fling with violin and harpsichord.

Now, after a-Maying, BSM has found religion with this Saturday’s upcoming performance of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)’s B Minor Mass. Expectations are pretty high: the following day’s Bach and Brunch at the Summit Manor is already sold out. After spending the whole night and following day with Bach, however, things could get awkward. Hence some staring at phones with the Mobile Mini-Concert Series 2022, and deciding to shape up and reconnect with spirituality in The Baroque and The Spiritual.

Soap opera portrayals aside, J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass has a special place in the heart of listeners and musicians alike. Composed in stages over a period spanning at least 25 years, the B Minor Mass reached its most complete form just one year before Bach’s death. It pairs the so-called “Ordinary” of the Catholic mass text with what many have called some of the most beautiful and moving music ever written.

The late conductor Robert Shaw (not a religious man itself) praised the B Minor Mass in religious tones. It is “a universal allegory of human existence,” he said, “in all its pain and promise…there’s something in it that is so beautiful and healthy–and that isn’t something that most people get a lot of in their lives.” That is, of course, unless you attend Saturday’s concert.

Basil Considine spoke with the Bach Society’s Executive Director Yunyue Lie and Artistic Director Matthias Maute about bringing the B Minor Mass to life.

Pianist Yunyue Liu (left) serves as the Executive Director of the Bach Society of Minnesota. Conductor and flautist Matthias Maute (right) serves as its Artistic Director.

Why the B Minor Mass and why now? Was this planned before the pandemic and rescheduled?

YL: This season, we are celebrating our 90th anniversary, we are presenting a month-long Minnesota Bach Festival with a series of concerts. It was planned quite a long time ago for this occasion: the B Minor Mass is the climax of the festival.

What is the organization’s history with this specific work?

YL: The first Bach Festival organized by BSM took place in the 1950s; the B Minor Mass was performed as part of that festival!

When and how did you first encounter the B Minor Mass?

MM: I can’t even remember, but in my own musical development, the B minor Mass emerged gradually as summit experience that transcends time and space.

Ever since I became artistic director of the Bach Society, the B minor Mass was a dream. Our 90th anniversary certainly is a wonderful opportunity to climb this summit together with our audience!

What specific factors make the Ordway Concert Hall an attractive venue for this concert?

MM: The Ordway Concert Hall has a great acoustic that enhances the sound but allows [great] clarity. This helps with the dense counterpoint in the choruses as well as in some of the arias, since one wants to hear all lines.

How large, separately, are the choral and orchestral forces being used? Did you consider a 1-on-a-part vocal ensemble?

YL: We have 4 soloists and 16 choir members, divided into 4+3+3+3+3 (4 first sopranos, 3 second sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and 3 basses). And we have 23 in the orchestra.

What is the precise composition of the basso continuo group?

YL: The basso continuo group for this concert is 1 Harpsichord, 1 double bass, 2 cellos, and 2 bassoons for choruses.

Are you using both oboes d’amore and oboes? 

YL: We are using both Oboe d’amore and Oboes.

If you are using the 3rd oboe part for the Sanctus, is this being doubled by another player, or is it the easiest gig ever?

Easiest gig ever. Bach did not have the musicians’ union in mind…. Oboe 1 only doubles on d’amore.

The cover page for Bach’s original manuscript for a section of the B Minor Mass.
Soloists Victoria Vargas and Nicholas Chalmers are well-known locals, but Sarah Brailey and Alan Dunbar are normally much further away. How was the casting conducted for the soloists?

YL: Sarah Brailey was already a regular of Bach Society of Minnesota concerts before she won her GRAMMY Award. Alan Dunbar has performed twice with Bach Society. We stay within the family.

What are some examples of the COVID-19 precautions being taken in rehearsal?

YL: Everybody – including singers – wears masks all the time during rehearsals, except for winds and brass. Unmasked personnel get tested daily.

What is a favorite moment in this piece and why?

MM: The B minor Mass mostly is a choir piece with choruses that represent the best Bach has ever written. The “Cum sancto spirito” chorus blends counterpoint with such dramatic harmonic progressions, that the musical outlook into heaven becomes terrifying and beguiling at the same time. An unforgettable moment of musical and spiritual inspiration!

The sound of different B Minor Mass recordings and concerts has changed significantly since the 1980s, with evolving scholarship and conceptions of Baroque music, Bach’s music, and the B Minor Mass in particular. As a conductor, what are some of the key guiding factors that are shaping the sound that listeners will hear in concert?

MM: Musicology has unearthed the small vocal forces (one per part, occasionally two per part) that were available to Bach during his years of active service at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. However the B minor Mass was composed at the end of his life and the Mass was not destined to be performed. Would Bach have chosen more singers for the choruses if available? It is all speculation.

We went for a chamber choir sound that combines clarity and flexibility with enough vocal power to stand up to trumpets, timpani, and a full-fledged Baroque orchestra, the size of which lines up with Bach’s own indications in his Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music [Editor’s note: A famous letter by Bach to his employers about the state of Leipzig’s church music]. With a chamber choir, not only does the contrast between arias and choruses become more striking, but the musical drama of the B minor Mass – first and foremost a five-part choir piece – becomes so tangible.

In an August 1730 letter, J.S. Bach described his proposals for an ideal church music establishment. The letter is preserved at the Bach-Archiv Leipzig.
Basil Considine