ABS’s Steve Lehning asks Chorus Members ​about singing Bach Motets

Next week, ABS will present a program of Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus. I thought it would be interesting to ask ABS Chorus members to reflect on their experiences with these works, so I sent out a number of questions and here are some of the responses I received.

Nearly everyone had their first experience with these works while they were in college.

For me that was the case—although my experience was as a continuo instrumentalist, not a singer. Several singers remember that they were required to perform them from memory, and because of that these works have remained with them in a way others have not. Cheryl Cain (soprano) even goes so far as to say that, because of the impact they had on her when she was younger, they have become part of her musical psyche!

While many remember singing these works as students, when asked how often they have the opportunity to perform them as professionals a very different picture emerges. Most admit to having sung one or two only once every four or five years. Allison Zelles Lloyd (soprano) replied:

  • “How often? Not often enough.”

Elizabeth Eliassen (alto) wrote:

  • “It is seldom that one hears more than one on the program offered by a choir of volunteers; in such cases, only the most muscular among the motets are programmed, mostly as if to say, “See, we can do it!”

Perhaps this is because they are considered so technically demanding. Elizabeth goes on:

  • “But, lay these works end on end, and one is hard pressed to hear anything but the sheer variety and depth of ways in which Bach was able to convey hope, assurance, faith, release and joy, setting scripture, paraphrases of scripture and hymn texts. We will experience emotions from poignant to ecstatic, range from lipid meditation to playful musical filigree to loud and echoing testimony.”​

When asked about Bach’s vocal writing compared to other choral repertoire, the opinion is nearly unanimous. As much as it is rewarding to sing, the music is very demanding. Tom Hart (bass) feels that:

  • “As a performer, your mind, voice and body have to be aligned to enable you to sing Bach well. As far as the motets are concerned, I look at each one as a perfectly constructed masterpiece.”

Daniel Cromeenes (countertenor) agrees, saying:

  • “The craftsmanship of Bach leaves little room for error, so you have to be on top of your game in both vocal technique and mental alertness. Also, while some [other] repertoire practically sings itself, Bach’s works usually require some digging in and studying in order to discern all the facets and intricacies of his music.”

Allison Zelles Lloyd is more philosophical with her opinion:

  • “There is a precision and an elegant pacing in performing the motets. Bach composes the phrasing, the imitation, the counterpoint, harmonic progressions, rhythmic proportions, the dissonances and resolutions in such a mathematically balanced way, that I am left feeling after singing it in performance, that all is right in the world.  It is a deeply satisfying experience. Bach further performs a balancing act with the overall structure of the motets by contrasting the florid passages with the syllabic chorales.  … I sometimes imagine the choir as a congregation—as human—while singing the chorales, and during the florid passages, as the angelic host.”

So, what is it about these pieces that makes them so demanding? As Ed Betts (tenor) so concisely puts it:

  • “The motets are exceptionally transparent and exposed, both musically and emotionally. There’s no hiding when you perform them!”

When Tom Hart was asked if there are challenges, he replied:

  • “Absolutely—especially the florid passages which usually move from section to section. They are soloistic in difficulty and yet demand an additional level of precision since other sections are singing much the same thing at the same time. Additionally, an overlying arc of lyrical movement is necessary to prevent the melismas from sounding mechanical. That is the challenge for me—to be able to create crystal clear movement that possesses human feeling.”

Elisabeth Eliassen agrees with Tom’s assessment that the singing must not sound perfunctory, but takes it beyond simply sounding human.

  • “Many of these motets contain challenging leaps and lines, requiring the utmost control, even restraint; you can’t over do, but you also can’t be stiff and stifled. Singing this music involves a great deal of mental energy, but it is also very physical. The shifts in mood conveyed by the music and text require a complementary shift in spiritual attitude, as well as a willingness to be vocally and spiritually exposed—a willingness to be used as an earthly instrument to a heavenly purpose.”​​

But, ABS is all about Bach, so how does our specific mission color these performances? Again, the opinion of our musicians is undivided.

  • “It is such a gratifying part of my life to perform with the musicians of ABS and under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas. The level of professionalism, commitment to the music, the performance, to each other, is like no other. The supporting staff are also incredibly nice and dedicated to the organization. It’s been amazing to watch ABS grow and flourish in the Bay Area over the last 20+ years. The depth of interpretation that Jeffrey takes us to is a remarkable feature of ABS. Each note knows its role in the work by the time we are done rehearsing: structural, passing tone, harmony, rhythmic, ornament, emotional, etc. When the orchestra plays, it is clear that they are actually phrasing based on the text delivery which unifies the delivery of Bach’s musical intentions.” (Allison Zelles Lloyd).
  • “We spend more time pulling out the musicality and rhetoric of a piece rather than just being content with getting all the notes in at the right times with some generic dynamics.” (Daniel Cromeenes).
  • “Jeffrey’s sensibilities as a musician and vocalist as well as his attention to detail let him know what is possible. It’s so rewarding to work with someone who doesn’t settle for ‘good enough’.” (Mark Mueller, tenor).
  • His “… approach to each work is as unique as each piece. We singers know that years and years of thought, performance experience, and the hearing of many interpretations informs the way in which he chooses to nuance phrases. Attention to ensemble is so vital; we endeavor to prepare our ensemble to breathe as a single organism, if possible, so we can allow the music to escape from the boundaries of the page and flow from us with as much control, grace and artistry as we can muster.” (Elisabeth Eliassen).
With tremendous succinctness Ed Betts states:
  • “There’s nothing to compare with performing the Bach motets with Jeffrey and the singers of ABS! It’s in a class all by itself.”

So, to sum up; as we (the ABS musicians) look forward to performing the Bach motets, Amelia Triest (alto) says:

  • “I would never pass up a chance to do the motets— there are very few other pieces that demand such intricacy and collaboration among the singers.  The challenges are great, but so are the rewards.”
And I think Mark Mueller speaks for all of us when he says:
  • “They’re as dense as diamonds and just as precious. Can’t wait!”
​— Steven Lehning

Friday March 31 2017 8:00 pm St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere
Saturday April 1 2017 8:00 pm First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley
Sunday April 2 2017 4:00 pm St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
Monday April 3 2017 7:00 pm ​Davis Community Church, Davis