My live introduction to historically informed performance of classical music, also known as HIP, came at last year’s Oregon Bach Festival. Last summer, in one of a series of small concerts at the University of Oregon’s wonderful Beall Concert Hall, I listened to new OBF artistic director Matthew Halls conduct the young musicians of the Berwick Academy for Historical Performance in an afternoon performance of Beethoven Two.
The music was wonderful, crisp, clear and refreshing, after listening to way too many wall-of-sound Beethoven performances in my lifetime. I wrote last year that it was like eating fresh salad in place of overcooked soup.
So tonight I was really looking forward to hearing Halls kick off this year’s festival with a HIP performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
First off, the B Minor Mass is often said to be Bach’s greatest work. Which is a little weird, in some ways, as it’s actually a combination of other works he composed in the last quarter century of his life — and it was never publicly performed in his lifetime. In fact, the first documented public performance didn’t happen until 1859, 109 years after Bach’s death. And, to be honest, while I like the B Minor Mass, I don’t love it. It’s not an immediately lovable piece of music. It’s more intellectual than emotional. It takes, I imagine, rather more study and work than I’ve given it so far.
The B Minor Mass, though, has long been the signature piece of the Bach festival. It was regularly performed at the festival under the leadership of Helmuth Rilling, the German choral conductor who co-founded the festival along with the UO’s Royce Saltzman. Rilling truly loves the B Minor Mass, and he understands it.
But when Rilling did the B Minor, he did it in full-on Romantic 19th century style — big chorus, big orchestra, big sound. And that big sound fit well in the Silva Concert Hall, which is acoustically fairly dead.
So then Halls, the new artistic director, shows up — and he needs to claim the B Minor as his own. Hence tonight’s concert. Unfortunately, I — and a fair number of people in the audience — would rather have heard the Rilling version.
My problem tonight wasn’t with the Bach. Or even the performance. It was largely with the concert hall.
The Silva has always had difficult acoustics. It’s OK for big, loud, unsubtle sound, but it struggles to present anything very quiet. And it turns out that a HIP version of the B Minor Mass has a lot of subtle going on.
“It’s delicate,” my seatmate said. “Like you’ve turned your hearing aid down.”
Another friend, with whom I checked in at intermission, was less diplomatic. “I’ve got hearing aids,” he said. “And I turned them up. Didn’t help.”
Other than not really being able to enjoy all the sound dynamics, the performance was pretty much flawless. Countertenor Christopher Ainslie, whom I haven’t heard before, has an amazing, bell-like voice.
Let’s go back to the salad metaphor. What sounded crisp and clean at Beall Hall last year was distant and muddled from row T at the Silva tonight. All those little subtleties were lost, and I found my attention wandering as we worked our way through the two-hour performance.
So here’s my suggestion: Move that little HIP style B Minor Mass into Beall Hall, where the audience can hear and enjoy it. Or go even smaller — try performing it in one of the churches in town. After all, that was Bach’s day job, as a church organist. He knew churches. And HIP wants an intimate space — not the Silva.