Listen: Les Violons du Roy Perform Bach's B-Minor Mass Live From Carnegie Hall
Jeff Spurgeon: In New York City, there are lots of ways to get to Carnegie Hall: the subway, a taxi, a walk down 57th Street. You've just found another way to get to America's most famous home for classical music. Welcome to Carnegie Hall Live. This broadcast series brings you Carnegie Hall concerts by some of the world's most celebrated artists, and you hear the performances exactly as they happen. You are part of the audience, sharing the experience of music-making at Carnegie Hall. I'm Jeff Spurgeon.
Clemency B.: And I'm Clemency Burton-Hill. And if you're a fan of Bach, then we have good news for you. Tonight's concert is devoted to a single piece by this master, his Mass in B Minor. Performing the work is one of the most acclaimed ensembles from Canada, Les Violons du Roy, which was founded in 1984 by tonight's conductor, Bernard Labadie. And joining them is the choir, also founded by Labadie, La Chapelle de Quebec.
Jeff Spurgeon: Carnegie Hall Live is supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support for WQXR is provided, in part, by the Howard Gilman Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the New York City Council.
Clemency B.: We had a chance to speak with Maestro Labadie earlier today, and he mentioned that the Bach Mass in B Minor is not a work that the orchestra has done on a regular basis. In fact, it's been about 15 years since Les Violons du Roy last performed this work. And we asked him why.
Bernard Labadie: And I would say the main reason is that it is, in my opinion, by far the most difficult piece by Bach, especially for the choir. This is a monument. This is like escalating Mount Everest for a choir. The sheer technical difficulty is there. Also, it's very demanding physically, especially because we do it without a break in performance. Which, for me, is very important because the idea of having a glass of wine and a bag of chips between the Gloria and the Credo doesn't seem, let's say, not highly spiritual to me. Of course, it adds an extra level of difficulty, in terms of physical resistance. But we also gain a lot in terms of coherence of the architecture by doing that.
Clemency B.: As Maestro Labadie mentioned, there's no intermission in this performance of the B Minor Mass. So we're going to take some time now to share with you some of the story of this amazing work, which Bach almost certainly never heard in a complete performance, and which he never referred to by the single name of the Mass in B Minor.
Thomas F. Kelly: Because the thing is, it's an assemblage of lots of different parts.
Jeff Spurgeon: That's scholar, author, and Harvard professor, Thomas Forest Kelly, who helps us understand why Bach, working in the very protestant, Lutheran city of Leipzig would write a mass in Latin in a time when wars were being fought between Protestants and Catholics.
Thomas F. Kelly: It's true that Bach worked for a Lutheran place, but in 1733, he decided he was going to make an appeal to the new Elector of Saxony, the new sovereign in Dresden.
Jeff Spurgeon: Dresden, the capital city that had both Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. And it had something else.
Thomas F. Kelly: A great musical court and a lot of the greatest musicians, performing musicians, in the world were working there. He put together a Kyrie and a Gloria, which in the Lutheran tradition, was very often used. There are six other things called Missa by Bach. And he called this Missa, a Kyrie and the Gloria, just those first two parts. And he went to Dresden, and he and his sons and his wife, Anna Magdalena, copied out parts for the Kyrie and the Gloria and presented them to the Elector of Saxony, hoping to get a gig as a court musician.
Jeff Spurgeon: It was a gift and a job application at the same time.
Thomas F. Kelly: Absolutely. Yeah. And it was a very obsequious letter that he sent to the new Elector saying, "Your most devoted ... " He did, two or three years later, get an appointment as court composer. Not that he moved, but it's kind of like a flower to wear on your lapel.
Jeff Spurgeon: And that's how the Mass in B Minor began, as a job application. The story continues 16 years later.
Thomas F. Kelly: It was not til 1749, within months of his death. Bach knew he was dying. His handwriting was getting shaky. He took that old Missa from 1733. He took a Sanctus that he had written in 1722 and performed in Leipzig. And he tucked in some other, older music of his to make the Credo, to make the Agnus dei, and the Hosanna, and all that stuff. And he put them together in four, separate booklets.
Jeff Spurgeon: Those four booklets, all together, are what we call the B Minor Mass. But why did Bach, near the end of his life, recycle old music into this larger, whole thing? We don't know for sure, but Thomas Forrest Kelly says it's quite plausible to say that Bach was summing things up.
Thomas F. Kelly: He does seem to have gathered his forces towards the end of his life. He did a lot of these things that seem to be summations. There's The Art of Fugue. There's the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. There are all these things where Bach is doing summaries of, "This is the best I can do and I think the best anybody could do." I believe that he put this together as a kind of legacy. I'm not sure that he ever intended it to be performed in his lifetime. He was getting so weak. And he couldn't see very well. And you can see that his handwriting is very shaky. I think he's putting it together for the ages. Or who knows? Maybe he's putting it together for God. He's saying, "Here it is. Here's this timeless text that has been used for thousands of years. Here's my best music put together by me, in the best way I know how." And that's the way he finishes his life. I can't imagine that it doesn't have something about leaving a legacy on earth, and ... He was a very devout man ... preparing his way in heaven.
Jeff Spurgeon: Thomas Forrest Kelly says that in the Mass in B Minor, we can see Bach displaying all of his skill in writing choral music.
Thomas F. Kelly: Like those sampler Oriental carpets, where the weaver weaves one of every pattern, to let you see everything that can be done, what you expect Latin church music to be like, I think, is something that Bach knew very well. Bach knew Palestrina's masses. And he'd copied some of them out and performed them in Leipzig. What they called stile antico, that web of polyphonic textures where each voice is independent, there are many, many choral movements in the B Minor Mass that are written in that antique style. And then he contrasts it with some of the lightest, most up-to-date kind of opera arias, with an instrumental introduction and then the singer sings. (singing).
Thomas F. Kelly: So then the instrument plays again, and the singers sing something contrasting, and then the instrument plays again, singer comes back and sings the opening music, but with a fancier version. That's exactly what you do in the opera house. And Bach's style makes it clear that he knows totally how to write up-to-date, cool, suave, gallant music. (singing)
Jeff Spurgeon: We asked Thomas Forrest Kelly about his favorite part of the mass.
Thomas F. Kelly: The first time I heard anything from the B Minor Mass, and it might be the first time I heard anything from Bach, it was the opening of the Sanctus, which I think is one of the most amazing sounds ever made. (singing)
Thomas F. Kelly: And this is for many more voices than most of the rest of the piece. It's the story in Isaiah, when I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne and the cherubs and the Seraphim swirl around him singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of hosts" incessantly. And I think Bach is making a picture of that incessant praise of God. Anyway, it's an amazing sound. And when the basses comes striding in, "Sanctus, Dominus." Anyway. (singing).
Thomas F. Kelly: I don't want to ruin it for the listeners, but I am looking forward to the Sanctus very much in this performance. And I hope it knocks you off your feet the way it did me when I first heard it.
Clemency B.: I am certainly looking forward to that moment, too. That was Thomas Forrest Kelly. He's the Morton B. Knafel research professor of music at Harvard University and the author of numerous books.
Jeff Spurgeon: And coming out on stage now, the members of La Chapelle de Quebec, the choir. Most of the orchestra, Les Violons du Roy, are already on stage, but the singers are making an entrance in one moment. And just backstage, here at Carnegie Hall, as we are ready for this Bach Mass in B Minor performance, we have our conductor and our soloists. The orchestra and the members of the ensemble are on stage, tuning. But backstage, we have Lydia Teuscher, the soprano; countertenor, Iestyn Davies; tenor, Robin Tritschler; and bass-baritone, Matthew Brook. And they will be all under the direction of Maestro Bernard Labadie, who founded Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec, some three decades ago. He's stepped away, for about the past five years, from running the day-to-day music-making there. Jonathan Cohen is now music director of Les Violons du Roy. But Maestro Labadie is back, bringing his ensembles and these terrific soloists to Carnegie Hall. And we are getting ready for an amazing musical journey. About two and a half hours of it.
Jeff Spurgeon: You're at home, so you can contradict the Maestro, and get yourself a glass of wine and a bag of chips if you want to. No one will know the wiser. But not the audience here at Carnegie Hall. We're all going to take this great, grand journey together in one, fell swoop.
Jeff Spurgeon: The cue for the audience to make sure their cell phones are turned off. That's a good idea at home, too. Who needs the interruption? And in just a moment, the stage doors will open, and we'll begin this journey, a journey that Bach himself never took, except perhaps in his mind, in the conception of these pieces that he put together, a cobbling together of some of the most amazing music for chorus ever written. And we're going to get a world-class ensemble to bring it to you right now.
Clemency B.: What a thought, that if Bach was putting this together as a summary, as a legacy, as we heard just then, what a legacy, Jeff. What a legacy.
Jeff Spurgeon: It's an amazing assemblage of pieces. And maybe one of the things that makes this piece so great is that you don't have to know a thing about the music to be swept away by it. The Mass in B Minor of Sebastian Bach, coming to you from Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec, conducted by Bernard Labadie. And it's coming to you now from Carnegie Hall Live.
Jeff Spurgeon: This is a broadcast from Carnegie Hall Live of the Bach B Minor Mass, performed by Bernard Labadie, Les Violons du Roy, and La Chapelle de Quebec. The performance pausing for just a moment so that all the members of the orchestra can retune. And then the music will resume.
Jeff Spurgeon: The monumental Mass in B Minor of Johann Sebastian Bach. It's just come to you from Carnegie Hall Live in a performance by Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle de Quebec, soloists: soprano, Lydia Teuscher; countertenor, Iestyn Davies; tenor, Robin Tritschler; bass-baritone, Matthew Brook; and conductor, Bernard Labadie. All the musicians on stage, all on their feet, and all deserving of enormous applause that you hear now from this audience at Carnegie Hall. Backstage, I'm Jeff Spurgeon, along with Clemency Burton-Hill. It's been all right. It's been all right, this time we've had.
Clemency B.: It certainly has, Jeff. What a transcendent privilege to experience this monumental ... That's a word that we keep coming back to, but I can't think of another one that will do it justice. And that one doesn't begin to, either. This monumental work, to hear it in this very concentrated marathon, and yet it passed like a moment, didn't it?
Clemency B.: Here is Bernard Labadie, embracing his soloists backstage, as they make their way back to the stage of Carnegie Hall for a very deserving further round of bows and applause. Bernard Labadie told us earlier that it's been some 15 years since Les Violons du Roy have played the Mass in B Minor. He told us that was because it's basically the hardest thing to do. And they made it feel very effortless tonight. As you ... That's applause there because there's the choir, getting to its feet, La Chapelle de Quebec, getting an unbelievable reaction here at Carnegie Hall, and rightly so.
Jeff Spurgeon: A 35-member chorus, a 33-member orchestra. And now, applause for the amazing soloists, given amazing music to perform, by J.S. Bach: the violinist, Pascale Giguere; the flutist, Anne Thivierge; oboist, Jean-Luc Cote; bassoonist, Mathieu Lussier; trumpet player, Benjamin Raymond; cellist, Benoit Loiselle. And we should make a special note of the horn player. His name is Louis-Phillipe Marsolais. And he, among all the soloists and obbligato players, was asked to come to the front of the stage, and he performed his part from memory. We are told that Maestro Labadie asked him to do that. A remarkable solo moment in a work full of amazing moments for every orchestral part, every voice part, soloists, chorus members, and all the players of Les Violons du Roy.
Clemency B.: Maestro Labadie founded Les Violons du Roy in 1984. He told us earlier that this work, Bach's Mass in B Minor, which Bach would never have heard in his lifetime performed as a complete work, is absolutely timeless.
Bernard Labadie: For me, there is no doubt that this ... More than ever, the world needs music like the Mass in B Minor. It's such a deep well of wisdom, of philosophical considerations, of the whole scope of human emotions. And not only emotions, there's also human aspirations to spirituality, of course, to God and to faith. You don't need to believe in God to understand and to feel, actually, that impact. That's one of the things that really fascinates me about Bach. The most complex pieces can speak directly to people who have absolutely no idea what's going on in terms of architecture. It's music that can be understand at many different levels. And if, of course, you are versed in the art of music, then it's like an onion that you can peel forever. There are so many different layers. And every time I work on the piece, I discover things that I didn't know about.
Clemency B.: Bernard Labadie, tonight's Maestro, talking about the timelessness of Bach's Mass in B Minor and also the fact that, in these times, we need it more than ever. Well, one of the soloists who more than brought this work alive this evening, Iestyn Davies, he's one of WQXR's "19 for 19" artists to watch over the course of 2019. New Yorkers will know him very well from his work at the Met. He's recently performed in Nico Muhly's Marnie, in The Exterminating Angel by Thomas Ades, well as Handel. He will be back at Carnegie Hall next week for a gorgeous program of English music and joined by a lutenist. But tonight it's been all about Bach. Iestyn Davies, thank you so much for joining us.
Iestyn Davies: Thank you very much.
Clemency B.: Congratulations.
Iestyn Davies: Thank you.
Clemency B.: That was truly extraordinary. Jeff and I, we almost fell off our chairs listening [crosstalk 00:00:15:50].
Iestyn Davies: That piece is my absolute favorite piece. I mean if, if you need anything to prove that music unites people, that ... Just sit there and listen to the Et Resurrexit and be surrounded by ... Today, right, I spent the afternoon watching my team, Liverpool, thrash Barcelona, four-nil, get through to the Champions League final, and you heard the whole of Anfield sing You'll Never Walk Alone. And this is as close as I can get to scoring that winning goal. It's just football, sport, music, this is where we do it. It makes you feel absolutely so elated.
Clemency B.: And you've just heard Maestro say exactly that, really. That whoever you are, irrespective of your background, whether you know the ins and outs of the architecture or the musicology, it doesn't matter. Get straight to it. It's like the ball hitting the back of the net.
Jeff Spurgeon: What's the special challenge about singing Bach?
Iestyn Davies: Well, it's music that, when you hear it, it sounds so beautifully simple because he manages to hide the complexities so well. I mean, that's why he's a genius. You shouldn't try and work it out too much. You shouldn't try and ... I think Janet Baker once said, "Don't try and make it musical." Don't try and phrase too much because Bach has written it all in there. It can be very instrumental. And the trick is not to sort of treat it like Handel, which is very different, where you have this sort of ... almost like the descant solo line on top of the orchestra. You are part of the texture. It's a real, team-playing kind of music.
Jeff Spurgeon: And you get to play not only with other vocalists, but you ... There's a wonderful team-playing in the obbligato pieces that Bach writes for these instruments that you get to duet with.
Iestyn Davies: Oh, yeah. [crosstalk 00:17:15]. And then the violins, in a way, are just this obbligato line in the Agnus dei, which is such a fascinating piece. Because those opening bass notes that precede the opening of my bit, there is about ... I think there's exactly 32. There's the length of Christ's life. And you have the tune, duh duh duh duh, it's 32 notes. And in the 32nd bar, I have this pause on "Peccata." It's just incredible.
Jeff Spurgeon: And that's part of the richness of this piece is, as we've been talking about, it can simply touch you by hearing it. But the farther, the deeper that you go into it, the more that's there to discover. Just a beautiful performance.
Clemency B.: What's it like to sing this at Carnegie Hall, Iestyn?
Iestyn Davies: It's always slightly terrifying. [inaudible 00:17:56] so you're like, "Oh, I remember. This is beautiful." And then you suddenly come out and think, "There's so many people who want you to do well." You got to do it.
Jeff Spurgeon: You've covered any fear completely. We had no indication that you had any-
Iestyn Davies: See my palms.
Jeff Spurgeon: ... Well, it's beautiful. And that note on Agnus dei, your opening note on Agnus dei, was a sacrificial-
Iestyn Davies: Somebody came up to me the other day and said, "I need some advice. I'm an amateur singer, but how do you sing the opening of the Agnus dei?" And I couldn't tell her. I said, "I don't know. It's just never ... it's always worked for me." I know lots of people find it terrifying, but it's a nice vowel.
Jeff Spurgeon: ... It was a piercing and beautiful note that was ... that had beauty and the sacrificial note that is in the text.
Clemency B.: I wish you could have seen Jeff Spurgeon's face at that moment. I've sat with Jeff through a lot of extraordinary performances, but nothing has elicited a reaction like that as the first note of your Agnus dei.
Iestyn Davies: I suppose it's as close as I get to doing something crazy like bungee jumping or diving off a high diving board.
Clemency B.: How does your relationship change to a work like this? You must have sung it so much over the course of your life.
Iestyn Davies: Yeah. I mean, I suppose I've sang Messiah a lot more, but this just ... And also, one thing to point out is that I sing this at different pitches. So this was at modern pitch and actually slightly sharper. I'm used to singing at Baroque pitch. It's a semitone lower. So it's ... This piece changes a lot because the Agnus dei has some very low notes and some very high notes. The "qui sedes" is very high, so if you ... Once you start doing it at these different pitches, the whole thing is a different ... It's like you have to have a different game plan when you do it. It just diminishes the thought. But for me, I just absolutely ... I did it once in the Proms, the BBC Proms, and it was live on television. And for me, that was just the sort of benchmark performance for all of us because it was such a stressful thing.
Iestyn Davies: But we did it in the Thomas Kirche, the week before, in Bach's church, so in Leipzig. So it was just a kind of release to then go and do it in the Albert Hall. The pressure was off and I ... It's ... Clips are on YouTube, illegally, and you can go and watch it and enjoy it. But for me, that ... Whenever I do that piece again, I will always think of that amazing thing, singing it at the Albert Hall. And this is as close as you can get, like maybe half the circle.
Jeff Spurgeon: Right, right. But still, the thrill is there. And that's really saying something to say that a performance in the Albert Hall is a comedown from the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig.
Iestyn Davies: Oh, completely. Completely.
Jeff Spurgeon: That tells you something about the power of singing it in Bach's own church.
Iestyn Davies: Yeah.
Jeff Spurgeon: That's just an astonishing thing. Tell us about your recital this coming week at Carnegie because it will involve smaller forces. I believe you'll just have one other person on stage with you.
Iestyn Davies: It involves my favorite accompanist ever, Thomas Dunford, who's playing here, actually, on Friday with Arcangelo, and Joelle Harvey, and Johnny Cohen. So that's handy he's in town. Yeah, we're doing a range of works by John Dowland, Henry Purcell, and Handel, who were all specifically called, by somebody, at some point, during their times, the Orpheus of England. I sing a cantata that was written by Cardinal Pamphili in Rome, which, of course, he actually uses Handel's surname. And it begins, "Handel." And then off it goes, and it's a very brown-nosing kind of text, all about Handel being the wonderful Orpheus. Henry Purcell, of course, his work was sold as Orpheus Britannicus, in the great book. And John Dowland had lots of tributes, including one by a person in Germany who called him the Orpheus of Britain.
Iestyn Davies: And so we kind of unite this idea over the centuries. And then in the second half, we've got this beautiful, interlacing that with the music of Bach, if you want, the German Orpheus, and sort of trying to show that the lute, which covers all these years, is such a versatile instrument because it was a portable instrument. And so Handel would have known it just as well as Dowland would have known it. And Tom's going to play Bach's Cello Suite on it, which is simply stunning, his recordings are. And you must get it. It's incredible. But it's nice to put this music in the context of European music in general because it's not really England's Orpheus. They are Europeans. They traveled, and they picked up music from everywhere. I think that's very relevant at the moment.
Jeff Spurgeon: Indeed. Indeed, as we consider the movement of peoples around the world. And to cover some of that history in your own performance is a wonderful way to connect it.
Clemency B.: Well, Iestyn Davies, we should let you go and have a well-deserved break.
Iestyn Davies: I know. Talking after singing counter is so hard. I should speak like this for the whole interview [inaudible 00:22:08].
Jeff Spurgeon: Well, you've done that very well, too.
Iestyn Davies: I'm going for a drink now.
Clemency B.: We will see you back at Zankel Hall next week. Next ... That's Thursday, May the 16th, half past seven, at Zankel Hall, here at Carnegie. Iestyn Davies, thank you again and thank you for that stunning performance. And New York audiences will also perhaps remember Iestyn from when he was on Broadway. He was playing the castrato, Ferinelli, in Mark Rylance's play, Ferinelli and the King.
Jeff Spurgeon: I had a great privilege of being on stage. They had some onstage seats for that performance, so I got to watch him from the back.
Clemency B.: Unforgettable.
Jeff Spurgeon: That's not only on Broadway, but here tonight, too. We're backstage, so it was actually a thrill to talk to him. I had never seen his face before. It was quite wonderful.
Clemency B.: What a talent. And as we mentioned, he's one of WQXR's "19 for 19." We are very pleased to have him. You can expect further collaborations between Iestyn Davies and WQXR coming up. Well, many thanks to all of the folks who made tonight's broadcast possible. Clive Gillinson and the staff of Carnegie Hall, WQXR's recording engineers, George Wellington, [Noruco O'Carvey 00:23:05], Duke Marcos, and Bill Sigmund, Max Fine, our stage manager, and our digital producer Greta Rainbow.
Jeff Spurgeon: WQXR's production team is Christine Herskovits, Joe Young, Matt Abramowitz, and Eileen Delahunty. Carnegie Hall Live is supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts on the web at arts.gov.
Clemency B.: Additional support for WQXR is provided, in part, by the Howard Gilman Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the New York City Council. I'm Clemency Burton-Hill.
Jeff Spurgeon: And I'm Jeff Spurgeon. This program is a production of WQXR in New York.