Columbia orchestra, choirs present Bach masterpiece

Mass in B minor will be performed in Columbia for the first time
Thursday, April 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:37 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 22, 2010
The Columbia Civic Orchestra and the MU Choral Union will perform Bach’s B Minor Mass on Friday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. The group rehearsed for two and a half hours on Tuesday and will do the same on Thursday in preparation for Friday's performance, which will take about two hours.

COLUMBIA — With lofty comparisons to da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” and Michelangelo’s sculpture “David,” Paul Crabb, MU director of choral activities, alludes to the magnitude of Bach’s Mass in B minor.

“This is a monument,” Crabb said. “It’s not just a concert but an event.”

If you go

What: Bach's Mass in B Minor

Where: Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, 203 S. Ninth St.

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Admission: $20; $15 for students

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Bruce Gordon, manager of Columbia Civic Orchestra, also speaks to the piece’s iconic nature. “I would say it’s the granddaddy of all sacred music in the Western tradition,” Gordon said. “It is truly magnificent and absolutely gorgeous.”

On Friday, more than 250 singers and musicians from MU Choral Union, Columbia Civic Orchestra and University Singers will perform the work at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, with Crabb conducting.

More than two hours long, the piece comprises four parts and has 27 sections. Bach, devoutly Lutheran, composed the Catholic Mass near the end of his life. The fact that it was one of his last great works adds gravity to it, said Stefan Freund, who directs the Columbia Civic Orchestra and teaches music theory and composition at MU.

“The way he wrote the piece, with its grandeur, its emotional range, its attention to detail, leads you to believe that he thought, ‘This is going to be the piece where I put all my marbles in and people will remember me for,’” Freund said.

During rehearsal on Tuesday evening, a seat in the theater felt more like a pew in a cathedral. The music rolled out through the hall with skin-tingling authority — it demanded to be heard. The emotions behind the Latin words were obvious, and the theater's height and epic decoration added to the inspiring effect.

Mary J. Renneckar, an alto in MU Choral Union, said the work's complex harmonies mirror the drama of the text. “Bach uses a lot of musical symbolism,“ Renneckar said. “When you get to the Crucifixion, the notes he wrote and the way he wrote them sound like the nails piercing Christ as he’s nailed to the cross. It’s stunning.”

Renneckar, who has a master’s degree in choral conducting from the University of Tulsa, said this is her first opportunity to perform the work in her 40 years of choral singing. “It’s a real honor to do it,” she said. “You’re paying tribute to this great piece of music and great composer.”

The full Mass in B minor has never been performed in Columbia before. “Either it was just too daunting to tackle or somebody wasn’t crazy enough to adopt it like I was,” Crabb said.

Renneckar said Columbians should be proud to have a choir with the ability to put on such an intricate, esteemed production. “This is a piece that is done in major cities in the country,” she said. “It’s by the far the most ambitious thing the choir has done.”

Crystal Frey, an alto in Choral Union, said the rapid-fire speed of the notes makes it difficult to sing. “It can be quite exhausting,” Frey said. But she is thrilled to participate in the performance; she first heard the Mass in B minor in 1983 and has been eager to sing it ever since.

“For me, it’s the realization of a very long ambition,” Frey said.

Crabb has felt a heavy responsibility to put his absolute best work into the preparation and production of the piece.

“If you approach one of the great works by the great composers, you better have some respect for it and say, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to try and give it its due,’” he said. “We never completely succeed, but we get as close as we humanly can.”

The piece evokes an entire range of emotions, Freund said, “from darkest depths to the brightest lights.” He believes the work can appeal to anyone, regardless of religious beliefs or musical knowledge.  

“Someone who has never heard the piece should walk out of there saying, 'I didn’t know music could be that powerful. I didn’t realize music could make me feel like this,’” Freund said.

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