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Concert Review: “Mass in B Minor” a music sanctuary at Bethlehem Bach Festival

A world of woe has been with us always.

For a good number of centuries so has the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German composer and musician of the Baroque era.

The Bethlehem Bach Festival has been here for more than a century, with the 116th edition underway for a second weekend, May 17-19, again providing a music sanctuary.

A quote attributed to German poet-author Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882) explains the salutary effect: “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

This is especially true of J.S. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” rendered in splendid precision and with bountiful joy by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Bach Festival Orchestra and soloists, and conducted with spirited exuberance by Dr. Christopher Jackson, Bach Choir of Bethlehem Artistic Director and Conductor.

The May 11 performance of the “Mass in B Minor” at the Bethlehem Bach Festival was attended for this review.

The Saturday program in Packer Memorial Church, Lehigh University, of the “Mass in B Minor,” which is presented in two parts, is propelled by the opening “Kyrie eleison!” (“Lord, have mercy!”).

The choir’s female voices rendered a relaxed, and relaxing, “Kyrie,” as if a gentle wind flowed over the heads of the audience that filled the church to its near capacity of approximately 1,100.

The females are balanced against the sounds of the male voices, and the instrumental intensity of basses and cellos, as if from ancient days, an epoch of mystery, evoking the very formation of the universe. The female voices prevail, as if better angels are in flight.

Speaking of angelic voices, Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, and Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, in the soprano I and II duet, “Christe eleison!” (“Christ, have mercy!”), are a wonderful and seamless blending, a perfect pairing.

The orchestra and choir are in conversation that is stunning and rhapsodic. The oboes and bassoons are especially lovely. The choir’s concluding “Kyrie eleison!” hangs in the air, resonating throughout the sanctuary.

The choir’s “Gloria,” heralded by strings, trumpets and woodwinds, provides opening exultation, succeeded by the contrasting, prayerful and a bit timid (not in execution but in intent) “Et in terra, pax,” with choir and brass circling back to a triumphant conclusion.

The “Laudamus te” aria by Panthaki was supported by Elizabeth Field, Bach Festival Orchestra Concertmaster, violin, in delightfully prancing performance style. Panthaki, seemingly effortless, is in astounding and satisfying contrast to Field’s vivacious playing.

The choir’s ”Gratias” solidly foreshadows the beautiful “Domine Deus” duet of Panthaki and Benjamin Butterfield, tenor, with his steadfast resolve, and Susan Charlton, flute, in graceful solo accompaniment.

“Qui tollis” by the choir tolls a somber magnificence, presaging a remarkable “Qui sedes” aria by Bragle, accompanied sweetly by Nobuo Kitagawa, oboe d’amore, and a moving “Quoniam tu” aria by Paul Max Tipton, bass, accompanied wonderfully by Anthony Cecere, French horn.

The choir’s breathtaking ”Cum Sancto Spiritu” concludes briskly and magnificently the first part of the “Mass in B Minor.”

The “Credo,” to begin the second part, showcased some of the choir’s strongest singing.

The “Et in unum” soprano and alto duet again brought together Panthaki and Bragle in splendid form.

The choir’s “Et incarnatus” is gently evocative, “Crucifixus” is infinitely mournful, and “Et resurrexit” is stunning, almost shocking in its power. The three choruses form a trinity, if you will, at the center of the Mass, and of its core beliefs and principals.

The “Et in Spiritum” aria by William Sharp, bass, is superb for his emotional depth, with sensitive accompaniment by Kitagawa and Lynne Cohen, oboe d’amore, and Chuck Holdeman, bassoon.

The choir scores another trifecta with “Confiteor unum,” “Sanctus, Sanctus” and ”Osanna.” In ways quiet and soaring, soothing and startling, questioning and reassuring, choir and orchestra take us to an exalted plane of music experience.

Butterfield returns for a lovely “Benedictus” aria. Bregle is back for a sensitive “Agnus Dei” aria.

The choir’s concluding “Dona nobis pacem” (“Give us peace”) is a wish from afar and one that couldn’t be more relevant in today’s world.

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, founded in 1898, performed the United States’ premiere of the J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, March 27, 1900, in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem has been a sanctuary city of music ever since.

116th Bethlehem Bach Festival, information: Bach Choir office, 440 Heckewelder Place, Bethlehem; office@bach.org; 610-866-4382, ext. 110, 115; https://bach.org/tickets/

PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEIN From left, Sherezade Panthaki, Meg Bragle, William Sharp, Benjamin Butterfield, soloists, 116th Bethlehem Bach Festival, Packer Church, Lehigh University.