Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Anna Hamre has conducted most of the great works of choral literature. But there’s one that has so far eluded her: Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor.
“It’s all those blasted notes,” the music director of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale and Coro Piccolo says with a laugh. “I’ve sung it before, but I’ve never conducted it.”
Which says a lot about how Hamre feels about the caliber of her singers.
Sunday’s concert will feature about 200 singers and instrumentalists on stage, including professional soloists Catherine McCord Larsen, Sarah Larsen, Brian Thorsett and Patrick McNally. We rated (with Hamre’s good-natured help) this notoriously challenging piece in several categories in terms of difficulty, then came up with a final ranking on a 10-point scale.
We’ll start with the easiest part of Bach’s piece first. Many composers set the Latin Mass to music, and most choral singers with experience have sung these words many times before.
Difficulty rating: 4.
Number of notes
This sounds like kind of a crass way to describe a challenge for a singer, but think of it this way: Composers often have the violins, say, skedaddling up and down in a flurry of notes because the instrument makes it relatively easy to do just that. Singing is another matter entirely; it can be quite hard to fit in a whirl of ornamented notes thanks to physical limitations. Still, Bach had no pity on singers. He wrote, and expected, vocal virtuosity. “Bach heard musical ‘lines’ in his head and would assign them just as regularly to singers as he would to violin players or oboists,” Hamre says. “The idea of writing something idiomatically for the instrument or voice was simply not a priority for a man with such a vision.”
Difficulty rating: 10.
Rehearsal challenge for conductor
Probably the hardest thing in terms of leading Bach’s piece, Hamre says, is to identify the composer’s rhythmic melodic idea, or what musicians call the “affect,” for each movement, and then stick to that with absolute constancy. The second big challenge is the choice of tempo. There is a sparkle in some parts of the piece and a melancholy in others, and the conductor wields great influence.
Difficulty rating: 8.
Rehearsal challenge for chorus
Did you ever have a class that required huge amounts of reading and work beforehand but you still felt underprepared going in? That’s what the Bach piece is like for the chorus, Hamre says. Many of the singers rehearsed by using computer-generated recordings of individual voice parts, while others went the more traditional route and used a piano. “I think that most of them have put in serious time into this in terms of preparation,” Hamre says of her singers.
Difficulty rating: 10
Emotion vs. intellect
Think of the piece as an example of the ideal blend of intellect and emotion. The architecture is matched by suave melodies and harmonies, Hamre says. But to really grasp the emotion of the piece, you have understand it as a religious testament of a profoundly religious man. To that end, Hamre has arranged for two singers – tenor Keith Brown, a retired Episcopalian priest, and baritone Brian Hamre, a Lutheran chaplain – to give a 1:30 p.m. pre-concert lecture.
Difficulty rating: 9.
Fitting everyone in
The performance space at Shaghoian Hall isn’t all that big. Expect a very, very tight fit. “For what it’s worth, our big concern is fitting everybody on stage,” Hamre says.
Difficulty rating: 8.
Hamre says it’s the Osanna, which breaks the singers into a double choir, meaning there are eight parts instead of four.
Difficulty rating: 10-plus
At Tuesday’s rehearsal, Hamre and the chorus board wanted to reward the singers for all that extra effort: “We decided that all of the singers need some little memento,” Hamre says, “so we are giving each chorister a tiny sticker Tuesday night, somewhat like a Boy Scout merit badge.”
Difficulty rating: 10. Were you expecting anything less?
Bach Mass in B minor
- 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave.
- www.fresnocommunitychorus.org, 559-709-6245