Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Japanese Mass in a Minor Key

Masaaki Suzuki
I said I would report on Left Coast Crime this week, and I will soon, but extraordinary art intervened on my plans and compels me to describe what I saw and heard last Tuesday evening, just after submitting last week's post.

The Bach Collegium Japan performed Bach's Mass in B Minor at Carnegie Hall. Hearing that magnificent music performed live is always a special occasion, but the devastation wrought on Japan by the earthquake and tsunami put this performance on a different plane, I imagine for the musicians and certainly for the audience.

The Bach Collegium Japan performs on period instruments and includes a chamber choir. Their founder and artistic director Masaaki Suzuki is one of the world's leading authorities on Bach.

Concerts like the one we saw are arranged years in advance. This one was part of a larger festival called Japan NYC, with all sorts of arts events scheduled to take place all over the City during the months of March and April. Just as the festival was getting started, tragedy struck the country we New Yorkers and Japanese visiting artists were beginning to celebrate.

For this concert, the hall was mobbed. The evening began with a short speech by the Executive Director of Carnegie Hall, who dedicated the concert to the souls that had perished in the disaster. He called for a minute of silence. The musicians on stage stood, all dressed in concert black that seemed like mourning weeds.

There is a beauty in sadness. In that hushed moment, nearly three thousand of us contemplated the destruction and the Japanese people's brave response to it. Then, the speaker left the stage, his podium was quietly removed, and Maestro Suzuki raised his elegant hands. What poured forth from the stage over the next two hours was heart healing and sublime.

In the hands of those musicians, the period instruments took on an Asian elegance. The words of the Catholic Mass seemed to convey only the emotions of a wounded Shinto and Buddhist people half way across the globe. Bach's glorious music, an artifact of Western culture, expressed what was basic and universal in the the longing of all humanity for peace and release from suffering.

The arc of the music from the Kyrie to the Agnus Dei gave time to contemplate more mundane things as well. The slender, handsome Suzuki would certainly win an international conductor's hair competition, if there were one. Not all the musicians were ethnically Japanese. The ranks of the Collegium, which always include artists from other parts of the world, swelled on that occasion to include a German baritone and a fabulous young South African Countertenor. The brass section all had French names, giving new meaning to the term French horn. The voice of the tall Dutch basso who stood at the center of the choir enriched the music, sounding like the best dark chocolate would if it could talk.

"Dona nobis pacem," they sang with one voice at the end. Give us peace. It was the prayer of everyone in the house for the Japanese people. The audience, totally enthralled by the brilliance of what we had heard and how it made us feel, leapt to its feet. The applause was thunderous, outstripping even the legendary usual enthusiasm of Carnegie Hall concertgoers. The evening had begun with sad thoughts but the art of Bach and his interpreters from a now-devastated country had united that sadness with joy.

I wish I could give you a taste of that very performance. The best I can do is share this snippet of another concert by the same group. Listen to this:

Annamaria Alfieri

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