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Too Big for Sunday

The Netherlands Bach Society performs a mysterious masterpiece that neither the Catholics nor the Protestants wanted.

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Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor is one of the summits of Western classical music. It is the longest-pondered and most elaborate work of religious music by the most pious of European composers. It contains some of Bach's grandest exercises in counterpoint and multiple voices, and some of his deepest expressions of Christian faith.

The typical performance of the B minor Mass is solemn, weighty — almost funereally reverent.

The Netherlands Bach Society's performance of the piece April 24 at the University of Richmond promises to be a different take on this immense score. Sung by 15 voices and played on 22 instruments, (less than half the standard complement), the Mass is lighter in texture and more varied in musical and spiritual tone.

"Bach experienced all the joys and sorrows of being human, and expressed all those things in this music," says Jos van Veldhoven, the Netherlands Bach Society's director. "Bach was a church musician and never wrote for the theater, but he could really think in dramatic terms. All music was theatrical in expression in the baroque era, and in this Mass, Bach makes a kind of religious theater."

It is a theater of the imagination, Veldhoven observes: "Only the first two sections, the Kyrie and Gloria, were performed in Bach's lifetime, and the whole piece — nearly two hours — is too long to [incorporate into] the liturgy in any church." Bach's fellow Lutherans borrowed some elements of Catholic liturgy but would have had no use for a full Mass, and Catholics of the time would not have been too keen about a Protestant's setting of the Mass.

"So it's intriguing as to why he wrote it," Veldhoven says. "This church musician, writing a new piece for every Sunday, and bigger pieces like the Passions for special occasions, devotes this time and energy to a Mass with no prospect of having it performed. It must have been something very special to Bach. It became a summation of all he knew about writing religious music."

The Netherlands Bach Society is performing the full Mass five times in six days on an American tour that begins April 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It continues with performances in Ann Arbor, Mich., Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle and concludes in Richmond.

"That is a very intense schedule for a very difficult piece," Veldhoven says. "In some sections of the Mass, there are between 10 and 20 parts being voiced at the same time, and when you use limited forces as we do, all these parts sound clearly. That takes performers — and listeners, too — deep into the structure, so we hear the music from the inside."

As a "historically informed" ensemble, seeking to re-create the sound and style of music-making Bach would have experienced, Veldhoven's band does not produce the smoothly blended sonority of modern singers and instrumentalists. "There is a huge difference," he says, "between the close mix of voices and instruments we've been used to since the 19th century and what people would have heard in the 18th century. The evidence suggests to me that in Bach's time there were greater contrasts of register and timbre, and that composers [exploited] those contrasts in expressing themselves." S

Jos van Veldhoven and the Netherlands Bach Society present Bach's Mass in B minor April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Richmond's Modlin Arts Center. Tickets are $32. Call 289-8980 or visit modlin.richmond.edu.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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