Carrettin and the Boulder Bach Festival take a new look at the B-minor Mass

Courtesy of the Boulder Back Festival

Bach’s B-minor Mass is one of the most studied, most wellknown works of music there is. But have all the answers been found to performing this monumental work? Zachary Carrettin, the music director of the Boulder Bach Festival and conductor for the B-minor Mass this weekend, doesn’t think so.

“The great choirs all over the world have been performing the B-minor Mass for over 200 years,” he says. “Each one of those masterful renditions differs greatly in tempo, in the sense of the musical line, in the dramaturgy of the text and the music. So there is still room for us to re-examine the music and what it means to us today.”

Carrettin’s approach is based in the particularities of the performances: the specific performers and the spaces where it will be presented.

“A performance starts with a composer and goes through the individuals interpreting and playing the work, and then that rings in an acoustic environment,” he explains. “All these forces are collaborating — and this is a concert not to miss, because of the personnel involved.” 

Carrettin has invited vocal soloists and other performers to join the Boulder Bach Chorus and Players. The guest artists will be soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg from the Netherlands; American mezzosoprano Melissa Givens; alto Julie Simson, who returns to Boulder where she taught at CU; tenor John Grau from Minneapolis, who also taught at CU; and American bass-baritone Michael Dean. Violinist Kenneth Goldsmith will be concertmaster.

“I have chosen such autonomous musicians that a lot of my work will involve listening to them, watching them and learning from them,” Carrettin says. “Bringing together the wealth of experiences and the distinct relationships that we all have to Bach and the B-minor Mass — it’s a great honor and a great thing to be part of.”

A much loved and celebrated masterpiece, the B-minor Mass nonetheless sits awkwardly in Bach’s career. It is a setting of Latin texts for the Catholic liturgy written by a German Lutheran. It is in length and musical style unsuited to performance as part of a service. It was not written in a single burst of creativity, but was compiled from music Bach wrote over more than 20 years.

The first two movements, Kyrie eleison and Gloria, were written in 1733 as a sort of job application to the music-loving Catholic court in Dresden. The music was performed, but Bach was never offered more than a title at the court.

The remainder of the work — the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei sections of the Latin mass — were pulled together much later, in part using music Bach had written earlier for Lutheran cantatas. The result is stylistically diverse, from Renaissance counterpoint to the modern style of his sons’ generation.

But the B-minor Mass is, Carrettin says, much more than a collection of movements.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of music, just for the counterpoint and the harmony and the virtuoso and gorgeous orchestral and choral writing,” he says. And, “the piece is so diverse, from songs of lament and longing and joy [that] it’s not like witnessing a sonic painting; it’s like going to an entire museum.”

Because the score is not suited for the celebration of Mass, performances become hybrid events — concerts that have sacred texts and religious significance. For the Boulder Bach Festival, Carrettin has embraced the hybrid nature of the performance in new ways, including markers of the liturgical purpose of the text — bells in places they would sound during mass, for example.

But he has also made decisions that run counter to the requirements of the liturgy. So he has decided to place the intermission not where it is usually found — between the Gloria and the Credo — but at a dramatic moment within the Credo, where it literally makes no sense liturgically: between the “Crucifixus” (“He was crucified“) and “Et Resurrexit” (“He rose again”).

“I thought, maybe that’s a good place to take an intermission,” Carrettin says. “We can reflect on the notion of sacrifice and salvation, and after the intermission we come back for the representation of the resurrection.”

“What speaks to an audience that does not attend a weekly Mass?” Carrettin asks. “How does the form and the text of this piece take on a different meaning in a concert? How does the context change, for a non-Catholic, or a non-Christian?

“In 2015 in Boulder, I’m interested in what is absolutely universal in this music. Whether we are reading a story from the Bhagavad Gita or hearing the Mass in B minor, there are profound text and harmonic elements that should inspire us to reflect and to grow.”