This weekend I have the privilege to perform one of the master works of all time, Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In a collaboration with The Lyra Baroque Orchestra and VocalEssence, Philip Brunelle has assembled a stellar group of musicians. I am graced, sharing the stage with fine soloists Maria Jette, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; and Aaron Larson, baritone. The chorus, VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, have obviously done their homework and quite well. They sing with all the emotion and accuracy that this monumental piece demands and remain standing for the entire concert. This is a piece that is written for the chorus, and in this case they steal the show. A copy of the program is attached for your perusal: VocalEssence Sound of Eternity Program.


St. Paul Pioneer Press – Rob Hubbard
April 9, 2011

J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is the musical equivalent of what Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Both tackle the nature of faith and examine the order of the universe from a distinctly Christian perspective. One chief difference between the two masterpieces is that you have to go to Rome to see Michelangelo’s, while Bach’s is more portable. Yet, opportunities to hear the B-Minor Mass arrive too seldom, making this weekend’s VocalEssence performances especially inviting. Within the very warm sanctuary of Minneapolis’ St. Olaf Catholic Church, conductor Philip Brunelle led an interpretation Friday night that gave strong voice to the extremes of joy and sorrow found in the powerful piece.
But he also was determined to augment the music, so it was accompanied by 27 short films by Bastian Cleve that were projected onto either side of the ensemble. Raising the degree of difficulty for the performance was the decision to perform it with a period-instrument orchestra, Lyra Baroque, which caused the singers to paint in duskier hues and presented some challenges with intonation and tuning. But all was forgiven when the wooden flutes or oboes d’amore were caressing the melodies.
Yet this was a performance at which the chorus stole the show, especially when the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers wrapped their lovely voices around something as exhilarating as the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” that closed the first half or the grief-drenched “Et incarnatus.” Among the soloists, the standout arias came near evening’s
end, when tenor James Taylor presented a gentle but forthright “Benedictus” as if affectionately extending a gift and alto Lisa Drew filled the “Agnus Dei” with sorrowful resignation.
As for Cleve’s films, they didn’t play a very prominent role, often appearing dim and indistinct against the exterior of the balcony. They were a collage of short interludes that rarely forged clear links to the text. But there was some nice imagery, including a soaring eagle above a mountain range and break dancers twisting their way through the “Et resurrexit.”

Review: Bach’s B Minor Mass needs no adornment

Article by: WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD , Special to the Star Tribune
Updated: April 10, 2011 – 6:00 PM

In our increasingly media-dominated world, classical musicians are increasingly trying to find new ways to engage this audience. The new Gehry Concert Hall in Miami was designed with projection screens. This weekend, VocalEssence took up that challenge with its performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis.

Bach assembled his Mass in the last year of his life. It stands as his final and ultimate statement on vocal and liturgical music. German filmmaker Bastian Cleve was inspired by this music to spend 25 years creating 27 short films to accompany Bach’s 27 movements. It is an amazing achievement, if something of a mixed blessing.

In the opening statement of the Kyrie, the longest movement, Cleve articulates his style: juxtaposing wildly diverse images, from the cosmos to Bach’s birth to pastoral scenes from his time to pilgrims from different eras crossing a desert.

There were some striking moments. In the Gloria, the ruin of an ancient cloister was magically rebuilt, as if that would be the result of “peace, goodwill to men.” And in the Qui tollis, a blazing inferno turns into a living bush at “receive our prayer.” But I found myself frequently closing my eyes. The music itself is so rich and stimulating that the panoply of images
created sensory overload.

The VocalEssence performance deserved to be savored. Conductor Philip Brunelle led a stately reading, frequently running longer than the film. But it played as a deeply felt statement of personal spirituality. The movement from Crucifixus (“crucified”) to Et resurrexit (“rose again”) took my breath away.

The 40-voiced Ensemble Singers sang with utmost clarity and precision, each section blending into a satisfying whole. They also sang with a passion that was inspiring. The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) was a glorious celebration. But the droning sound of the Lyra Baroque Orchestra frequently muddied the aural landscape.

Of the vocal soloists, it was the women who excelled. Maria Jette’s crystalline soprano soared thrillingly and was ideally paired with Lisa Drew’s warm, plummy alto. James Taylor brought an appealing lyric tenor, but a straining for effect often marred his performance. Bass Aaron Larson had an amazing facility for coloratura, but was underpowered.

This was a celebration of Bach’s music that could be enjoyed on many levels.

Critic William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.