Fifty years is a major milestone for any musical venture. For Boston Baroque, which claims to be the country’s longest-running permanent period instrument orchestra, this golden anniversary is especially significant. The organization is not only celebrating a half century with its founding music director Martin Pearlman at the helm; this Sunday, it also celebrated a long-awaited return to familiar territory, with the sonically exquisite surroundings of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall after a season spent entirely in GBH’s Calderwood Studio. The anniversary season kicked off with one of the most monumental works of the Baroque period: Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
This weekend offered performances at both Calderwood and Jordan; I had planned to go to Calderwood for the Saturday evening show, but wound up at Jordan on Sunday afternoon thanks to a travel snafu that ended with my spending a sleepless night in an airport terminal. Waiting until Sunday to experience it at Jordan allowed me a better space to hear the B Minor Mass, both physically and mentally. Calderwood is serviceable as a concert venue and very friendly to livestreams (Boston Baroque plans to stream several of this season’s programs from there), but the room is acoustically uninspiring. Sunday’s performance ran about two and a half hours, including one intermission. That’s a lot of Bach to take in even under the most ideal of circumstances.
But if ever an occasion called for a lot of Bach, this would be one of them. New England Conservatory’s COVID precautions last season strictly limited capacity and runtime of concerts in Jordan. What more effective way for Boston Baroque to say “we’re back” than throwing the doors open on one of the most ambitious and sprawling pieces for chorus and orchestra in the repertoire?
I had been underwhelmed by most of the Boston Baroque events I attended in the last few seasons before the pandemic, with the exception of an excellent 2019 “L’incoronazione di Poppea.” But if Sunday’s Mass was any indication, the organization has turned a page. Orchestra, chorus, soloists, and Pearlman combined to deliver the most compelling performance I’ve seen from Boston Baroque in years.
That slate of soloists featured several names well known to anyone who’s been a regular at Boston Baroque, including the reliably radiant sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Sonja DuToit Tengblad, the keen and thoughtful tenor Nicholas Phan, and the electrifying bass-baritone Kevin Deas, who made his debut with the company in 1997 and has appeared in over 40 performances since.
Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford proved herself a shining addition to that pantheon as soon as she opened her mouth for her first aria, reeling off graceful melismatic lines without a hitch. The mournful “Agnus Dei” aria falls second to last in the piece, and by that time everyone is about ready to go home; listening to Mumford sing it, I could have stayed for hours more. Maybe it’s time for another run at Vivaldi’s “Juditha triumphans,” or whatever else Pearlman might have with a lead role for a mezzo.
The orchestra under Pearlman’s baton was also in top form, flooding the hall with a warm, full sound that never grew thin no matter how quietly it played. Principal flutist Joseph Monticello masterfully shaped the stately flute obbligato that undergirded the “Domine Deus” duet, and concertmaster Christina Day Martinson was an excellent partner for Tengblad during the zippy “Laudamus te.”
But the keystone of any B Minor Mass is its chorus, and on Sunday afternoon, the Boston Baroque Chorus was outstanding. From the luminous chorales to the intricate counterpoint, the 28-voice ensemble sang with the most confidence and command that I can ever remember hearing from a Boston Baroque chorus. The warm temperatures and the sheer length of the piece may have tempted a few listeners in the balcony to nod off during the lengthy Credo section, but I’m willing to wager that the people around me weren’t the only ones who bolted upright during the chorus that told of Jesus’s resurrection with triumphal glee. The final chorus, “Dona nobis pacem,” burned like a candle in the darkness after the “Agnus Dei” aria, and by the end the entire room seemed aglow.
At Jordan Hall, Oct. 16.