Monday, May 21, 2001

May Festival peaks with Bach

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Saturday's performance of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor, not heard here since 1979, will be remembered as one of the great May Festival performances of our time.

        Robert Porco, director of choruses, presided over the second evening of the 128th May Festival in Music Hall. From the dark, spiritual tones of the opening Kyrie, Bach's B Minor Mass flowed seamlessly, buoyed by Mr. Porco's elegant and confident musicianship and resilient tempos. One of this country's leading authorities in choral music, Mr. Porco was equally effective with the orchestra, making this an ideal collaboration.

        J.S. Bach never heard his Mass. It is a summation of his life's work; a montage of compositions adapted into this monumental example of musical genius.

        The May Festival Chorus was joined by four superb soloists and authentically small forces of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Porco brilliantly coordinated it all into an organic whole, and the result was exhilarating.

        The chorus bears the weight of the B Minor Mass.

        To perform such a taxing role with such discipline and beauty is a genuine achievement. The choral sound was richly varied — luminous and flowing in the Kyrie II, with its stile antico (Renaissance) technique of overlapping voices; and enunciating energetically in the Credo.

        The chorus was superbin long, florid passages, and strongly rhythmic in the great choral fugues. Mr. Porco controlled his palette like a painter, inspiring dark intensity in the Crucifixus, and leading jubilantly into the Et resurrexit. The concluding Dona nobis pacem was a sublime summation, that gradually crescendoed like billowing clouds.

        Some of the most beautiful moments were performed by the soloists, aided by the continuo of cellist Norman Johns, bassist Owen Lee and Heather MacPhail (portative organ). Mezzo-soprano Paula Rasmussen projected a ravishing voice in arias such as Laudamus te, a stunning duet with violinist Rebecca Culnan. Her Qui sedes, with Lon Bussell on oboe d'amore, was compelling for its unusual timbre. She beautifully captured the poignancy of the darkly chromatic Agnus Dei.

        Soprano Pamela Coburn communicated with pure tones and perfect intonation, and her voice seamlessly intertwined in duos. Tenor Stanford Olsen joined her in Domine Deus, a smiling collaboration with flutist Kyril Magg.

        One of the evening's high points was the Benedictus, with Mr. Olsen navigating the high range with a light tone, and elegant contributions from the Mr. Johns and Mr. Magg.

        Bass-baritone John Cheek performed his solos with distinction, including the low florid passages of the Quoniam.

        As 2,707 listeners stood with ovations, three flower presenters — Madeline and Mitchell Russell and Margarette Tarver — charmed the crowd with another Festival tradition.


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