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Concert Choir delivers monumental performance

MIT Concert Choir
Bach's Mass in B minor.
Conducted by John Oliver.
Kresge Auditorium.
Dec. 3.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

John Oliver's reputation precedes him. With prestigious credentials from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival he seems well-suited to the job of molding an group of amateur singers into a responsive singing ensemble.

Oliver and his MIT Concert Choir were joined by soprano Margaret O'Keefe, mezzo-soprano Eleanor Kelley, tenor Richard Clement, and baritone James Kleyla in a performance of Bach's Mass in B minor at Kresge Auditorium on Friday night. With an unnamed (or uncredited) orchestra, Oliver and his singers produced a professional-sounding performance of the great baroque work that could just as well have been rendered in Symphony Hall.

Unmistakably the cornerstone of the Baroque choral repertoire, the B minor Mass began humbly as Bach's petition, dated July 27, 1733, to the King of Saxony for the position of Court composer. It is difficult to believe that Bach (1685-1750) actually envisioned the Mass as we know it from the time he started writing the first sections. Many parts of the Mass were probably written as late as the 1740s. Moreover, Bach had no qualms about copying some of his previous compositions and reworking them into the Mass. For example, the Agnus Dei is borrowed from an aria in the cantata "Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen."

Given the varied nature of the B minor Mass, it is equally unlikely that Bach ever intended the whole Mass to be performed in one sitting. However, as modern performances go and with all the richness of the music, this mass is a monumental two-hour delectation for any listener's ears.

The first thing I noticed about the Concert Choir was that the chorus was huge -- almost gargantuan in proportion. Having been musically educated in the "period performance" school of thought, I was at first skeptical that even Oliver would be able to direct such a large group of amateurs. The opening Kyrie assuaged any doubts I had, however, as the orchestra and chorus commenced precisely on the mark with resounding confidence.

Throughout the performance, the chorus maintained a high level of tonal homogeneity, even in the faster movements like the Cum sancto spiritu at the end of the Gloria section. Probably the most significant accomplishment was the eight-part Osanna in the Sanctus portion of the Mass where the chorus is required to divide itself in half. Through all the twists and turns of Bach's contrapuntal style, the chorus beautifully negotiated each passage, certainly communicating the grandeur and scale of the Mass.

The professional soloists all had their opportunities to shine, but the Mass itself seems to favor the soprano and mezzo-soprano. O'Keefe and Kelley nicely executed their solos and duets. Though I felt a bit of tightness in Kelley's voice, the two voices were stylistically matched and pleasing to hear.

Clement and Kleyla were also satisfying in their solo roles, both producing a nicely projected and beautiful sound. The most trouble I had was with Kleyla's phrasing, which seemed unnatural -- mostly in the earlier parts of the Mass. It seemed to stutter at certain points, daring the orchestra to stay with him. I never actually observed any departures from the score, so my difficulty with Kleyla's phrasing is probably interpretational.

Given Oliver's esteem, his conducting abilities hardly need to be argued. I did appreciate his decision to split the first and second violins into two groups. This separation of violins provided a nice clarity to some of the counterpoint within the music. The only surprise was in the Benedictus where my score calls for a solo violin; this performance featured a solo flute instead. Given the span of time over which the Mass was written, it is likely that some editions ask for a solo violin and others ask for a solo flute -- either way, a minor point.

The orchestra presented some fine soloists like its concertmaster, first oboist, and its exceptional first flutist. Also notable was the excellent continuo ensemble of the first cello, double bass, and organ.

Oliver's masterful account of this high Baroque choral treasure has me in great anticipation of his next performance. I am told that the Verdi Requiem is slated for performance in the spring. We are all quite fortunate that a high-quality musician like Oliver can bring us the greatest choral piece of the Baroque era in one semester, followed by the greatest choral piece of the late Romantic era in the next.