For years, Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians have been presenting Bach cantatas and concertos, thereby establishing Madison's first continuing laboratory for period-style performance of Baroque music. It's time the press took full notice of them, and what better occasion than their most ambitious venture so far.
Bach assembled his "Mass in B Minor" in stages over the years, reusing some music from his earlier cantatas, while creating a kind of spiritual last testament to match the "scientific" last testament, his "Art of Fugue." Both are towering achievements, abstract summations of his art, conceived with indifference to questions of performers and circumstances. The Mass, which Bach never heard performed, anticipates Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" in creating something new: the Latin sacred work as a concert piece, transcending traditional liturgical functions.
Stephenson rightly made his own choices among options for a work with no clearly defined performing tradition of its own. Leading an ensemble of 22 period-instrument players, plus solo vocalists, he was joined by the UW Madrigal Singers, a choir of 33 mixed voices under Bruce Gladstone. While Stephenson gave overall direction from the harpsichord, Gladstone conducted the choral segments.
The solo sections were distributed among eight singers. Reinforced by some chorus members, they also constituted a mini-chorus, two singers on each of the five parts, replacing the full chorus for greater intimacy in certain sections. Bach is pitiless in his veritably instrumental expectations of his singers, and these performers responded with consistent technical and artistic quality.
Stephenson demonstrated anew his ability to attract players with period-style expertise, not only local but regional. To his reliable corps of string players he added experts on such winds as flute (subtle), oboe d'amore (oh, so mellow), natural horn and Baroque trumpets (thrilling). Tension was palpable among the performers in the first of the two presentations, last Friday at the First Congregational Church. Tempos were generally brisk, quite fast in the choruses, almost breakneck in one or two instances. But singers and players brought it all off with wonderful skill and spirit - the first time Madison has heard this landmark score in such "historically informed" re-creation.
If you missed this first performance you have a second chance, on Saturday, May 10, at Trinity Lutheran Church. And next year, an even more ambitious project: Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" in April.