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Halls reaches back to make Bach new again.

Byline: Marilyn Farwell For The Register-Guard

The Oregon Bach Festival opened with a new sound world for Bach.

For those of us who reveled in the luxurious sounds of Helmut Rilling's readings of Bach's masterpieces, Matthew Halls' presentation of Bach's "B minor Mass" was surprising. He pared down the orchestra and chorus to numbers closer to Bach's, exchanged modern instruments for mellower, quieter period instruments, used a lower pitch, and reduced the chorus to 39 singers.

The result was a more intimate account of the Mass, and like Halls' wonderful version of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers" last year, it was a revelation if not a revolution for the festival.

As his life was winding down in 1748-49, Bach assembled his "Great Catholic Mass," as one of his sons called it, by gathering and revising disparate pieces from his vast oeuvre of almost 25 years of composition.

Structurally, the work alternates between choruses and arias. Stylistically it incorporates Gregorian chant and Baroque dances. And religiously it moves from public to personal declarations of faith.

Halls' small forces were brilliant. Experts on period instruments replaced long -familiar faces in the orchestra, and the choral singers' vibratoless tones blended so well that each section sounded like a single voice.

It is no secret that this new vision of Bach has eviscerated the old personnel who provided Rilling with his characteristic sound, but it is also true that the new musicians are as accomplished on their period instruments as were the others on their modern instruments.

The chorus was especially impressive. Once again, Chorus Master Kathy Saltzman Romey prepared this group with her usual precision. The "Sanctus" was particularly mesmerizing, and the fugal sections were exact and transparent. The orchestral musicians, many of whom provided beautiful obbligatos, were experts on transverse flutes, sweeter sounding trumpets, violins with gut instead of metal strings, and natural horns. The result was a more intimate experience of this great, sprawling work.

The soloists also fit Halls' vision of Bach's sound. Many of the solos were taken by a fine countertenor, Christopher Ainslie.

One of the highlights of the evening was the duet between Amanda Forsythe's attractive soprano and Nicholas Phan's sweet tenor in "Domine Deus," what John Eliot Gardner has called a "spiritual love duet." Baritone Martin Smith's resonant voice was at its best in his second solo, and Sherezade Panthaki's rich soprano excelled in the operatic "Laudamuste."

Conductors are often challenged by the seeming uniformity of baroque music, especially in the long fugal sections. During the "Kyrie" and "Gloria," which Bach wrote as a single composition in 1733, dynamic shifts were hard to come by until the end when Halls took the "Cum Sanctus" at a blistering speed. The great narrative of belief in the "Credo," however, allowed for more diversity, and Halls brilliantly sculpted the three sections beginning with "Et incarnatus est."

Not all will be pleased with this "new "Bach, but Matthew Halls' approach adds an exciting, new chapter to the Oregon Bach Festival. CONCERT REVIEW The Oregon Bach Festival runs from June 23 to July 10. For information about the festival, its schedule and tickets, go to

Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.
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Title Annotation:Reviews; Simpler presentation allows for more intimate interpretation of the Mass
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jun 26, 2016
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