‘B Minor’ performance makes for major occasion

Culture Music
Johann Sebastian Bach's "Mass in B Minor" is considered one of the greatest compositions in musical history.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” is considered one of the greatest compositions in musical history.

Since his rise to fame during the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been performed around the world and in a myriad of different interpretations and formats. So it’s not every day that his works are framed in a new and fresh way.

But the Early Music Society of the Islands’ (EMSI) production of Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” is doing just that, as it marks the first time the monumental piece will have been played in Victoria in a historically informed manner — that is to say by a full orchestra of period instruments with period performance styles.

The concert, taking place in Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral on Saturday, August 6th, features eight soloists backed by the Arion Baroque Orchestra from Montreal, headed by conductor Alexander Weimann.

James Young is the artistic director for the EMSI, a Victoria-based organization that specializes in traditional reproductions of music from before 1800, and he says this particular opportunity jumped out at him more so than other proposals.

“It’s the opportunity to present a world class, large scale production of one of the pinnacles of western art music,” Young says. “The ‘B Minor’ mass is perhaps not unrivalled but unsurpassed as a work of music.”

The EMSI has organized and produced classical music performances for over 30 years. Founded in 1985, the organization reproduces some of the greatest music ever composed as close to how it was written to be played as possible. Through the use of historical venues, specialist musicians, and period instruments, tradition truly is important to Young and the EMSI as a whole.

For Shannon Mercer, a soprano who has sung a variety of baroque composers throughout her career, and one of the eight soloists performing the mass, this adherence to tradition is particularly exciting.

“[The baroque instruments] just add this warmth that you sometimes miss with modern versions of [classical music],” Mercer says. “The colours and the sounds that come from some of these instruments that were meant to play [baroque] music mean you understand why he wrote for these instruments.”

Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” is the last piece he ever composed, and is considered to be the culmination of his long and storied career. Although the piece is religious, featuring Kyries and Credos, staples of other religious works of the time, Young believes the music appeals to a secular audience just as well.

“I think the emotions that Bach is exploring are universal human emotions,” Young says. “[Bach] conceived of them in a religious context, but emotions like joy, emotions like fear, emotions like guilt; these are human emotions. And Bach explores them in a way that is very insightful.

“He has a range, a profundity, an understanding of emotion that is unsurpassed, I would say, in the history of music.”

While the music is easy for any audience to engage with, the performers are experiencing a vastly different side of Bach. The composer was renowned for his technical ability, weaving separate melodies together in order to compound their strength and beauty. When it’s performed properly, it sounds effortless, but for Mercer and the other musicians, it’s anything but.

“Bach is kind of the geek composer for all early musicians because it’s such complicated music, and it’s challenging,” says Mercer. “Even though I’ve sung so much of it, every time I learn a new Bach cantata [a section of baroque music] or new piece . . . I go, ‘Oh I know where this is going’ and then it goes somewhere else. It’s always keeping you on your toes. You can never just relax with Bach. You’re always vigilant.”

Mercer recommends some research before the performance for a greater appreciation, but is quick to add that the piece is just as impressive for an unfamiliar audience.

“Because [the piece] is on such a grand scale . . . it’s going to have a huge impact. It’s going to hit you between the eyes . . . and Bach wanted that to happen.” Mercer says. “There’s so much happening, [and] it’s so rich in texture and tone and drama, [that] it’s everything that you could want from one piece.”

The EMSI’s production of “Mass in B Minor” is this Saturday at Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral. Tickets and other information are available at earlymusicsocietyoftheislands.ca/events/j-s-bach-mass-minor/.