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Review: Tucson enjoys admirable performances in Bach's Mass

Review: Tucson enjoys admirable performances in Bach's Mass

The applause was building inside Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Friday night just as Bruce Chamberlain exhaled.

It was one of those waiting-to-exhale moments — equal parts relief and exhaustion.

For nearly two hours, he led the small St. Andrew’s Bach Society orchestra and choir in the first of two performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor.

The performance was historic; it was the first time anyone in Tucson staged the Mass according to the one-voice, one-part setting by musicologist Joshua Rifkin.

We’ll leave to the Bach purists and skeptics the debate of whether Rifkin was right in supposing the composer had intended the 110-minute choral monument be performed this way, or with a behemoth orchestra and choir.

But one thing was certain: Singling out solo voices among the eight vocalists and the 17 musicians crowded on Grace St. Paul’s stage brought the Mass into magnificent focus.

Each performer got to shine, for good or ill.

There were some disadvantages to showcasing individual voices. A few had trouble projecting above the orchestra or one another, although as the evening progressed, the musicians and singers seemed to strike a pleasant balance.

Bach’s B minor Mass is written as a celebration, and Chamberlain treated it as such. He kept the tempo mostly light and upbeat, with rolling timpani courtesy of moonlighting Tucson Symphony Orchestra timpanist Kim Toscana in the closing “Dona nobis pacem” and a folksong festiveness punctuating the “Osanna in excelsis.”

Chamberlain deftly allowed the music to find its own voice among the orchestra, composed mostly of current and former TSO players. He followed a similar approach with the singers, most of them culled from the ranks of the University of Arizona, where Chamberlain is head of choral activities.

The result was some admirable performances including from sopranos Jennaya Robison and Susan Lake Stokes, who both showed off dazzling coloratura; bass Christopher Thomas, whose rich tone was mesmerizing; tenors Mathew Holter and Adam Boyles, who both projected with warmth and color; oboists Lindabeth Binkley — artistic director of the Bach Society — and Cindy Behmer, who doubled on “Et in Spiritum sanctum”; and former TSO flutist Viviana Cumplido on the “Benedictus.”

Bach purists wagging a finger at Rifkin would find comfort in the Bach Society’s finale. Chamberlain paired the choir — which had been separated by sex — to create the supple harmonies you get from a larger choir.

It was Chamberlain’s idea to perform Bach’s Mass. Perhaps that explains the exhale; turns out it was a good idea.

Review St. Andrew’s Bach Society performing Bach’s B minor Mass Friday. Concert repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2331 E. Adams St.

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