Holy Week has brought a rare confluence of Bachian bounty to the Chicago area, with all three of J.S. Bach's surviving sacred choral masterpieces — the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, and the Mass in B minor — turning up in performance within days of one other.
And the floodtide will not stop there. In little more than two weeks, Riccardo Muti is to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in his first local performances of the great B minor Mass. Somewhere, Johann Sebastian must be smiling.
On Wednesday night at St. Vincent de Paul Church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, John Nelson conducted a fervent account of the Mass in B minor as the third and final installment of his rotating cycle of the big Bach sacred choral works, coinciding with the Easter celebration. The concert was sponsored by the Glen Ellyn-based sacred choral music organization Soli Deo Gloria, of which Nelson is the founding artistic director and a major creative spirit.
Wednesday's B minor Mass revealed much the same combination of strengths and weaknesses that have accompanied previous realizations of Bach's religious music given at this venue under his direction.
Nelson had at his disposal an experienced team of vocal soloists and a responsive chorus of 32 singers, the latter prepared by Donald Nally, director of choral organizations at Northwestern University. The choir was balanced by a solid chamber orchestra of 28 freelance players, along with a trusty continuo group consisting of John Mark Rozendaal, cello; Collins Trier, double bass; and Stephen Alltop, organ.
Molding long lines sans baton, the conductor infused his singers and instrumentalists with his own keen sense of musical and spiritual identification. His brisk to moderate tempos allowed each section its own musical integrity and expressive weight within the elaborate symmetries of Bach's grand design.
The stumbling block, as usual, was the church's swimmy acoustics. While it was nice to hear chords resonating richly within that vaulted, handsomely decorated space, almost all of the Latin text was reduced to a round blur. Nelson worked hard to achieve a clearly defined interplay between the orchestra, groups of instruments, full and divided chorus and soloists. But the highly reverberant space did not do him or Bach any favors.
For most listeners, however, the spirit of the work, which celebrates the risen Christ and the enduring power of Christian religious belief, came through. English translations of the main sections were projected on screens at the sides of the altar area, although a detailed breakdown of the various solo and choral sub-sections would have been helpful too.
Nelson drew large the contrasts between slow choruses such as the "Crucifixus," with its grave, hushed solemnity, and the quick choral sections that immediately follow (the chorus' "Et resurrexit" was exultant in feeling even if the words were a hash). Too bad the acoustics rendered the "Osanna's" distinctions between double chorus and orchestra a moot point.
Of the soloists, soprano Nicole Cabell proved the most consistently impressive. The Lyric Opera/Ryan Opera Center alumna, now an international vocal star, spun the florid lines of her "Laudamus te" with a freshness, purity and agility that were echoed by Jorja Fleezanis' ornate violin obbligato. The veteran tenor Stanford Olsen sang a warmly expressive "Benedictus," even though he experienced difficulties at the top of his vocal trajectory.
Bass-baritone Matthew Brook brought musicality and dignity to both of his solo sections, one with obbligato horn and bassoons, the other with the mellow oboe d'amore. The weak link was mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel, who fought a losing battle with pitch in her "Agnus dei," and whose prominent vibrato sat uneasily atop the cloudy acoustics.
The distinguished instrumental soloists included Alyce Johnson, flute; Peggy Michel, oboe and oboe d'amore; and Jonathan Boen, horn.
Nelson and his colleagues of the Chicago Bach Project promise to be back at St. Vincent de Paul Church in April 2014 to begin their Bach cycle anew with a performance of the "Passion According to St. Matthew."