As Long as Canaries Sing, We Hope

February 07, 1994|By TIM BAKER

The Handel Choir of Baltimore will perform Johann Sebastian Bach's ''Mass in B Minor'' at 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 27 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation on West Preston Street.

Come early. At 2 p.m., a professor from the Peabody Conservatory will explain the work's musical composition. Then you can sit quietly in a pew and prepare yourself for the spiritual experience of this sacred music. But preliminary study and meditation are not required. All you have to do is show up, and Bach's mass will sweep you away.

It begins dramatically. Block chords in B minor. The full orchestra, chorus and all four soloists sing together:

''Kyrie eleison.'' Lord, have mercy on us.

It's repeated five times. Powerful. Passionate. At first, the plea for mercy (''eleison'') is sounded twice, in two voices each time. Then the entire chorus takes up the appeal. The rhythm builds in the violins. But this is no plaintive cry. Instead, here at the very beginning of the mass, Bach's resounding chords proclaim his majestic theme: God's mercy is assured.

A long fugue immediately follows. Flutes and oboes play above the orchestra. Soft. Slow. Tranquil. Reflective. The music gives us time for our minds to stop thinking. The full chorus comes in again to repeat the Kyrie. First the tenors. Then, in turn, the altos, sopranos and basses. The melody rises. The ascending line is counterbalanced by repeated falling note pairs which add a longing tone to the eleison. The strings cascade. Mercy flows down on us.

Underneath the sublime sound, Bach's Mass is deeply theological. This is one of the reasons it is not as readily accessible as Handel's ''Messiah.'' Most of us are not as familiar with it. The words are in Latin, not English. They express liturgical concepts rather than tell an age-old story. The music is more complex. Its interplay with the words and ideas more subtle. The questions it raises more challenging. Its impact more profound.

Two violins in unison begin the second movement in D-major. They alternate with the two sopranos singing a joyous duet. ''Christe eleison.'' Christ have mercy on us.

The third movement returns to Kyrie eleison, but now in F-sharp minor. The tone is sorrowful. Accelerating choral entrances intensify the pleas for mercy. The sopranos hit a high A near the end.

Then the trumpets celebrate: ''Gloria in excelsis Deo.'' Glory to God in the highest. The tempo slows. Flutes and oboes take over. Hushed. Hesitant. ''Et in terra pax.'' And on earth peace. The first trumpet soars. ''Hominibus bonae voluntatis.'' To men of good will.

Bach believed these things absolutely. God would grant us mercy. Peace would come to men of goodwill. His B-Minor Mass resounds with faith and certainty.

But as we listen, are we so sure? Traffic, TV and gunfire orchestrate our skeptical secular lives. For us, a rap reality plays counterpoint to this Baroque celebration of religious conviction.

The Credo begins. Nine movements. Thirty minutes of Christian creed. The tenors lead off, joined by the other voices in succession. ''Credo in unum Deum.'' I believe in one God. Choruses, duets, and arias follow. I believe. ''Et in unum Dominum, Jesum Christum.'' Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.

It doesn't matter what you believe. This music will carry you away from the cacophony of contemporary life. You don't have to follow the words. Put down your program. Listen. Let go.

I've read somewhere that hearing a Mozart concerto will actually raise your measurable IQ for 15 or 20 minutes. Bach's B-Minor Mass is equally mind-altering. But it transforms different sensibilities. It opens a different dimension. It awakens the spirit.

''Crucifixus.'' He suffered and was buried. Strings and flutes play complementary rhythms. Slow. Sad. Sorrowful. Then . . .

Resurrection! A triumphant shout from orchestra and chorus together. The trumpets rejoice. New life. Renewal. You don't have to believe in heaven to feel it.

''Osanna.'' Hosanna!

Unlike the ''Messiah,'' the ''Mass in B Minor'' hasn't become a traditional part of any religious holiday. So we can't always count on hearing a live performance in Baltimore every year. But choral groups like the Handel Choir, the Concert Artists and next year the Choral Arts Society keep the great work alive in our city. They're the canary birds in the depths of our urban decline. As long as they sing, we can hope. That promise shines in Bach's transcendent final movement.

''Dona nobis pacem,''

Full orchestra. Four-part chorus. First and second sopranos in unison. Singers and instruments enter successively with the theme. The first trumpet comes in high over the sopranos. Just before the end, all three trumpets in their highest register soar above the singers. You'll carry both the sound and the sense of it away with you.

''Dona nobis pacem.'' Grant us peace.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays. For tickets to the ''Mass in B Minor,'' call 366-6544 or write P.O. Box 26913, Baltimore, Md. 21212-0913.

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