Think Bach, I mean, big.
Eighteen voices and 20 musicians — some arriving from Toronto and Montreal with authentic Baroque instruments — will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s expansive and exalted 100-minute choral mass.
The Red Deer Symphony Orchestra’s Voices of Heaven concert on Saturday, Feb. 22, at Gaetz Memorial United Church is something of a behemoth. The glorious Mass in B Minor is difficult to sing and to play, and has also been hard to co-ordinate.
“It’s one of the biggest projects we’ve ever put together,” said music director Claude Lapalme.
With the guest list encompassing the VoiceScapes choir from Calgary, as well as two oboists and a flute player from Eastern Canada who are helping the RDSO perform Bach’s sacred work on authentic, period instruments, the concert is a “massive” undertaking, Lapalme added.
But the end result should be something people from this century rarely get a chance to experience — a mellow Mass that sounds much like what a baroque audience would have heard when the Bach work was completed, circa 1749.
Lapalme described it as a woodsier and less brassy presentation than modern renditions would be. This will be achieved by using antiquated wooden flutes and ancient-style oboes that resemble large recorders. The violins and cellos will be strung with sheep-gut, narrow trumpets will be played without valves, and a portable organ will be tuned to a lower baroque register.
Lapalme said RDSO musicians will performing on period instruments, which they either own or will borrow.
The exception are two of the RDSO’s regular contract oboists, who have opted to bow out of the concert, since their instrument has perhaps changed the most in the past 300 years.
The variations are so significant that only one of the RDSO’s oboists is confident enough to play the older form of the instrument, which differs greatly in sound, function and appearance from contemporary oboes, said Lapalme. Two guest baroque oboists are, therefore, being brought in from Montreal to make up the three players the Mass requires.
As well, a guest flutist is being brought in from Toronto to play a wooden baroque flute since the RDSO’s principal flutist Lucie Jones was sidelined by an injury.
After all the arrangements — including some musicians opting to get together in smaller groups to practise their parts — Lapalme believes the orchestra is ready to tackle Bach’s monumental work that will take listeners through a devotional journey of “extraordinary beauty.”
The glorification of God is evident throughout the expressive piece that Lapalme considers “one of the supreme achievements of Western art.” He cites its depth, the quality of the composition and the humanity reflected in it: “There are universal feelings, going from pleading to praise.”
At one point in the Credo section, the choral singers are lamenting Christ’s crucifixion in Latin, while the orchestra creates a pounding sound. “It’s very like he is being nailed to the cross,” said Lapalme, who added “sometimes (the work) can be extraordinarily descriptive.”
The origins of the Mass are murky. It’s Catholic in style, even though Bach was a devout Lutheran.
The work was composed throughout his life, starting from before 1724 to just before Bach died in 1750. While the Kyrie and Gloria sections were completed as commissions, the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei sections were wrapped up later in the composer’s life — apparently for reasons of his own and not at anyone else’s behest.
Lapalme believes the prolific Bach, who could never stop writing music, might have simply seen the Mass as an ongoing project that needed completion.
Whatever his reasons for creating the Mass, Bach has left the world a remarkable piece of music that’s at once personal and universal. “If we do our jobs well, people should leave feeling uplifted,” said Lapalme.
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert are $53.70 (51.70 students/seniors) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.