Music review: Da Camera Singers soar in 40th anniversary concert

Last modified: Thursday, August 07, 2014
In its 40th anniversary concert Sunday, Da Camera Singers presented Johann Sebastian Bach’s “B minor Mass,” and very nearly built a stairway to heaven.

Credit should be given to the group’s conductor, Sheila Heffernon, for the months of hard work that went into preparing the concert, which was presented at Sweeney Concert Hall at Smith College in Northampton. Her leadership of the 45-member amateur chorus and the 23-member professional orchestra was flawless, free of excessive gestures and deeply understanding of the music and her own resources.

The “B minor Mass” is one of the very few superb masterpieces of human musical genius. It calls for many to be involved in preparation and performance and is made for large spaces, such as the huge Gothic cathedrals of Europe (in one of which your correspondent first sang in this Mass, a life-changing experience). Heffernon did not have that luxury, but the music transcends such limitations.

Bach had no mercy on his singers. His intricate counterpoint and fugues were written as much for vocalists as for instrumentalists, and they require flexibility and strength both from soloists and chorus. In this performance the singing of the contralto, Justina Golden, was especially beautiful, and the soprano, Diana Brewer, sang with lovely clarity in her later solos. It was strange to see Peter Shea, so familiar to local audiences as a tenor, listed as a baritone, and in his solo, “Et in spiritum sanctum,” he was clearly happier in the higher range.

There were many gifted soloists in the orchestra, led by Smith violin professor Joel Pitchon, who had his special moments for skill and velocity in the “Laudamus te.” Special credit should be given to the three continuo players (cello, double-bass and organ), who seldom had a rest during the two-hour performance. Without the sensitive playing of the cellist, Judith Serkin, the orchestra could not have accompanied the vocal soloists at all convincingly.

Of the other soloists, the most beautiful playing was that of Frederic Cohen on the oboe d’amore in Golden’s solo, “Qui sedes,” and Shea’s solo; of the flautist, Christopher Krueger, and, spectacularly, of the horn-player, Christine Mortensen, in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.”

Most exciting were the three trumpets who first came in during the “Gloria.” Even one “Bach” trumpet, with its exceptionally high pitch, is exciting, so one can imagine the sound of the three brilliant players, who perhaps more than anyone lifted the audience toward heaven.

The chorus has a huge part in this Mass. Bach was especially hard on the sopranos, who must hold a high line with demanding breath control and very difficult music. The 12 sopranos did well and never weakened, but when Brewer joined them toward the end, the difference that one strong trained professional can make was obvious.

From the lower voices there were walls of sound, as, for example, in the “Sanctus.” Their hardest challenge was in the moving quiet choruses of the creed — “Et incarnatus” and “Crucifixus” — both sung with great sensitivity, achieving a true pianissimo in the latter. This was followed by the joyful “Et resurrexit,” which, like the early “Gloria,” invited us to dance with joy.

At the end of the splendid and inspirational “Dona nobis pacem” the members of the large audience leaped to their feet in prolonged and excited applause. That was the measure of the performance, conceived and led by Heffernon and played and sung with genuine love for the music. It was a privilege to perform, and for us in the audience to participate in Bach’s great summary of his musical achievement.