Janos Gereben wrote (April 29, 2003):
When it comes to small, intimate performances of the biggest of big oratorios, one local organization looms large: the American Bach Soloists. Over the past weekend, on three consecutive days, Jeffrey Thomas' ABS took on the greatest of the great, Bach's B minor Mass. The result, as heard Sunday, in the Calvary Presbyterian Church, was power and excellence where much larger ensembles are merely loud and competent.
Because the Mass was not performed during Bach's lifetime, Thomas has always argued, "we are set free from... producing a recreation of any one performance." That is to say, there is no authentic version to follow. Thomas figures, based on performance records of other Bach works, that his configuration is about "right."
The fact is that most contemporary performances, while not necessarily employing a large orchestra, usually have a larger chorus. Thomas used five soloists, a chorus of 25, a 25-piece orchestra and organ. This made more "sense" than ABS performances of cantatas in past years, with a chorus of eight and four soloists participating in the choruses, but I, for one, feel nostalgic about that special sound and spirit that perhaps resulted more from economy than considerations of musicology. A few years ago, when ABS last performed the B minor Mass, there was a chorus of about 20 and four soloists, and I still remember the soloists singing along in some of the choral numbers. Unwise for individual singers as that might have been, there was something heartwarming and memorable about it for the audience.
On Sunday, the sound was "right," even without that communal touch. The performance was dedicated and rich, although at times it bogged down in swirling eddies, instead of the majestic forward flow this mightiest river of music requires. And yet, time and again, one sub-section after another, the performance reached surging, memorable high points. At the risk of stretching the water analogy too far, those climaxes – especially the quiet ones - provided the rare gift of the coveted "oceanic feeling" that's the essence of Bach when all goes well.
At times, the development of the music within a sub-section presented an actual contrast. "Credo in unum Deum," for example, sounded thin and listless at first, gradually building to great impact. The Sanctus, all of which needs to be gently, joyously "swinging," was dragging at first, found the right rhythm and sound, to dissolve flawlessly at the end into oceanic peace.
There was much credit to go around among the soloists and orchestra, but it was the chorus that served as the backbone, the leading force of the performance. Although ABS is, in fact, an organization of solo artists, I don't think I ever heard "Qui tollis peccata mundi" so completely blended, one voice from the many. Whether Thomas made that happen or he was caught up in the sound of the chorus, the section was heavenly, and, for a change, all of one piece, not self-correcting in time.
There was a bit of barking at the beginning of "Gloria in excelsis Deo," and the tempo being rushed, but the whole of the Symbolum Nicenum, a mini-Passion in the heart of the Mass, fast developed into solid music-making, once again the chorus singing brilliantly, with a pianissimo that portrayed well the speechless grief of the "Crucifixus."
Thomas kept even pauses between the sections, and here, he made a mistake. Instead of allowing the "Resurrexit" to explode after a beat of silence, the conductor waited too long and failed to connect the ecstatic joy, Bach at his most operatic-dramatic, to the deep sorrow preceding, prompting it.
The chorus, bless 'em, went on to rock in "Confiteor" and, even more so, in "Et expecto." And yet, it was only after the Symbolum Nicenum that Thomas shuffled the chorus, placing the 10 men in the middle, surrounded by the 15 sopranos and altos, the sound improving significantly. There was both a bigger sound and more energy in "Osanna in excelsis" and "Dona nobis pacem" from the now-"men-centered" chorus.
Violins (Elizabeth Blumenstock, first chair) were at their usual best, John Thiessen's trumpet better than ever, in the good company of William Williams and Stephen Escher. Sandra Miller's flute obbligatos were spectacular, there were some problems with the horn, and Stephen Hammer's oboe d'amore soared in "Qui sedes" with a romantic abandon that might have been more appropriate a couple of centuries after Bach.
Soprano Rosemarie van der Hooft made a welcome return to ABS. Her "Laudamus" (with Blumenstock's obbligato) was suffused with the joy of the text. Oakland soprano Mary Ellen Callahan still seems to lack muscle under the voice in the middle range, although she performed well in a duet with David Vanderwal, a very tall tenor with a voice that's not as large as the man. His "Benedictus" (with Miller's affecting accompaniment) revealed "two voices" in one throat, intriguing, not yet well integrated.
Alto Jennifer Lane's big, broad voice melted into the orchestra and Hammer's obbligato, but her "Agnus Dei" sourather mechanical, contrasting with the deep feeling expressed by the chorus in the following "Dona nobis pacem." Bass Aaron Engebreth's arias revealed a fine voice, stronger in the baritone range, and an impressive sense of sincere, powerful musicality.
But, again, the radiant heart of the ABS B minor Mass is the chorus. So much so that - disregarding standard journalistic practice - each and every one them should be named. That's the least they deserve not only for excellence, but also for meeting the incredibly grueling task of four straight days of rehearsals, followed by four consecutive performances of this most demanding of choral works. (The fourth performance was Monday night in Davis' Mondavi Center.)
They are: first sopranos Michelle Clair, Christine Earl, Andrea Fullington, Susan Judy, Cheryl Sumsion; second sopranos Jennifer Brody, Elisabeth Engan, Alexandra Ivanoff, Amelia Triest, Allison Zelles Lloyd; altos Suzanne Elder Wallace, Elisabeth Eliassen, Paul Flight, Linda Liebschutz, Katherine E. McKee, Jason Snyder.
Tenors Edward Betts, Daniel Hutchings, Andrew Morgan, Mark Mueller, John Rouse; basses Hugh Davies, Thomas Hart, Raymond Martinez, Chad Runyon, David Varnum. Bravi to all!