Kyrie, with harpsichord and Kindle

BEIRUT: It took some time to notice it. The Kyrie was done (Lord have mercy) and the Gloria (Glory to God) had just started. Running an eye over the 30-strong chorus – 60 eyeballs intent on the Latin text before them – you notice that one, two, maybe half a dozen pairs of eyes are not reading printed matter. At least one chorister’s holding a Kindle. Others are clutching different brands of tablets.

The electronic media seem a bit out of place in a concert of 18th-century music, whose accompaniment is said to issue from period instruments – horns and fiddles and flutes and such that, if not actually manufactured during the baroque period, were built according to historic specifications. Does this church, you wonder, have Wi-Fi?

It’s not uncommon for Beirut churches to double as venues for orchestral and large-scale choral concerts. This is particularly the case for Saint Joseph Jesuit Church – the de facto home of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.

When it ventures down from its Beit Mery aerie, Al Bustan Festival regularly stages concerts at SJSC as well. Such was the case Wednesday evening, when the Jesuits hosted a performance of J.S. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.”

The festival has chosen to mark its 25th anniversary with a Bach-flavored program and the “B Minor” was the third, and final, concert to feature Estonia’s Corelli Baroque Orchestra, Collegium Musicale Choir and soloists. Earlier, the ensembles had conspired with Al Bustan’s music director, Gianluca Marciano, to stage Bach’s “Magnificat” and “St. John Passion.”

Scholars suggest the “B Minor” is the last major work Bach completed. As such it was probably destined to be counted among the composer’s masterpieces. And why not. The piece is replete with appealing tunes – more than a phrase or two of which will be familiar to anyone exposed to Bach’s vast repertoire.

The Estonians’ rendering of the mass – particularly the Collegium’s contributions, and those of individual soloists – was spirited and Maestro Gianluca’s efforts to keep the mechanism coursing forward with energy and cohesion, unflagging.

That said, Wednesday evening’s “B Minor Mass” was a creaky, at times wobbly, affair.

In some cases the concert’s but-it-doesn’t-sound-like-my-CD shortcomings simply reflect the nature of “ancient music” performance.

The Corelli Baroque Orchestra advertises itself as a period instrument ensemble and baroque strings, it’s said, are notoriously hard to keep in tune. That might explain the creeping flatness sometimes falling from the strings and the pauses to allow the CBO to retune – a string-by-string refit before the Credo, with further adjustments before the Sanctus.

Natural trumpets, and baroque brass generally, can be notoriously difficult for all but the most adept players to control. This existentialist struggle was at its most truculent during “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” the first solo of the ever-amused-looking bass-baritone Matthew Brook, when a number of superbly inopportune blarts and farts squeezed mischievously from the bell of Brook’s solo accompaniment – the otherwise-extinct corno da caccia.

At about this point in the mass, too, restiveness among audience members suggested they’d begun to wonder whether the SJSC pews – the congregation’s wooden benches – have been designed with the same period authenticity as the CBO’s instruments. Is there a deliberate relationship between the unforgiving surface upon which baroque-era worshippers were made to sit, you wonder, and the sharp-edged sumptuousness of Bach’s sacred music – all of it composed for a space more or less like the SJSC?

Bach is, for some, the great exception. Among the 20 or 30 people interested in “contemporary classical” music – who have little patience for the indulgences of 19th-century European tradition, who dismiss most of the baroque as variations on a theme of sewing machine whir – there are many who remain intrigued by Bach’s work for the mathematical precision of it.

This precision – essential to realizing Bach’s music and made all the more challenging the more elaborate the work – is not necessarily attained by all who’d perform it. The rarity of accomplishing Bach’s music may be part of its allure.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 23, 2018, on page 16.




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