Recap: Grand Rapids Bach Festival performs Bach with a bonus – sublime music by Bach, sensational music by Julian Wachner

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

For true lovers of music, a major performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach always is a big deal. But there always are ways of making it an even bigger deal.

The Grand Rapids Bach Festival, for its Mass Reimaginings concert led by Artistic Director Julian Wachner on Thursday, March 31, delivered an evening of sublime music by Bach plus and sensational music by Wachner all expertly performed by the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Add the exhilaration of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, 28 professional singers who sounded like twice as many.

Add the excitement of featuring soprano Nola Richardson, the newly-minted winner of the $10,000 inaugural Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award, stepping in as a last-minute substitute just hours after winning the inaugural prize at the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

Add again the elation of pairing the Bach’s Mass in A major with Wachner’s adventurous Epistle Mass.

And top it all off with the effervescence of Wachner leading the program with the energy and enthusiasm of a boy let loose in a room full of really cool gadgets.

Call it Bach with a bonus. The audience at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church got its money’s worth and then some.

Mass Reimaginings - GR Bach Festival

Mass Reimaginings concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation for the efforts of five top-notch soloists plus the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Grand Rapids Symphony, the first of two major choral concerts in the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

Bach’s Mass in B minor is well known because his setting of the Roman Catholic Latin Mass arguably is the greatest work Bach ever composed. Bach’s Mass in A Major, however, is one of the other ones.

It’s one of four Lutheran masses he composed, in part, by revising and adapting some of his earlier music. You might say it’s some of Bach’s Greatest Hits in one performance.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street was a joy to listen to. The ensemble from the famous church in lower Manhattan was well-rehearsed and well-balanced. Their opening Kyrie was very florid and flowing. The Gloria delivered enough sound to raise the roof of the historic Grand Rapids church that opened in 1848.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who has performed previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony, sang the Domine Deus with nimble delicacy at the top of his range and robust power at the bottom.

Soprano Nola Richardson graced the Qui Tollis with a sweet, ethereal voice, set against a pair of flutes and strings less than three hours after she sang the very same selection with piano in the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in the final round of the first Keller Award competition.

Countertenor Daniel Taylor sang the Quoniam Tu Solus with buoyancy.

The assembled forces delivered the propulsive Cum Sancto Spiritu with musical acumen and emotional conviction. A listener couldn’t ask for more.

The inspiration for Wachner’s Epistle Mass was Bernstein’s “A Mass,” a theatrical piece that’s as much about the drama as it is about the music. It was an eye-opening and ear-stretching adventure. It also was fun for an audience that got to sing along at one point.

Julian Wachner uses the ordinary of the Latin Mass interspersed with a modern text by librettist Royce Vavrek that represents a letter from the last human being on earth, written for a future alien race to discover.

The Chorus sings the Mass in Latin. Baritone Stephen Salters sings the epistle in English.

The Grand Rapids Symphony played magnificently on the piece that called for a wide variety of tone colors from strings as well as from a complex battery of percussion

Salters’ wide-ranging baritone, both in compass and color, proved to be capable instrument of dramatic possibilities. The text is intense and packed with emotion, but Salters delivered a commanding performance that also served to grab you by the lapels and give you a good shake.

The choral passages are ambitious, full of thick, meaty chords and seemingly random vocal lines all requiring accomplished singers to perform.

Wachner led a thrilling performance of the Gloria with rolling waves of sound and vivid gestures. The artistry of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street was breathtaking on the Sanctus. The seep of the final Agnus Dei with organ added to orchestra and chorus truly was climactic.

The new Artistic Director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival demonstrated he’s interested in performing the music of J.S. Bach with integrity. But he’s also interested in much more.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 12:00 PM
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