The famed conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner called Bach’s Mass in B minor the “Everest” of music.
Anna Hamre of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale knew she wanted to climb that mountain.
By the time Hamre and her musicians last Sunday at Shaghoian Hall reached the “Laudamus Te” section, the sixth of 27, in Bach’s monumentally difficult piece, the 200 singers and instrumentalists on stage were still on their upward climb. But it was already clear to those in the audience that the summit was very much in reach.
And that at the top we’d be treated to an exhilarating view.
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In the years ahead, I am sure I will remember several things about this concert. One is simply as a mark on a personal timeline: It turned out to be the final cultural event I would cover for The Fresno Bee after 26 years at the paper and 16 years on the arts beat.
I’m sure I will remember, too, the high level of musicianship demonstrated by both singers and orchestra members. This was a piece so monumental that it hadn’t been performed in Fresno for 22 years, and Hamre – who has brought the Fresno Community Chorus to impressive heights in her tenure over the years – got to finally conduct it for the first time in her long and distinguished career, always a dream of hers.
But likely my most searing memory will be of a moment so tiny it was barely noticeable. At the end of the “Laudamus Te” section, mezzo-soprano soloist Sarah Larsen finished her solo and the orchestra played the last phrase. It was then that it happened: Somewhere near where I was sitting at the front of the hall, soft enough that it could have been a distant cat purring, an audience member gently hummed along with the instrumentalists the final three notes.
I bet it wasn’t meant to be done out loud. Something about the “Laudamus Te” so moved this person that he or she couldn’t help but join in the music. It was a tiny declaration of solidarity with the singers and instrumentalists. It was the mountain-climbing equivalent of throwing on a shell jacket and grabbing some crampons.
This is why I love live performance.
Sure, there are a dozen professional recordings of the Bach Mass that I could access in mere seconds with Apple Music. In terms of other artistic genres, there are so many opportunities for distraction in our wired world: Instead of trooping out to live performances of local theater or experience an art exhibition in person, I could sit at home and binge-watch Netflix and Hulu until my sofa cushions mutate into mush.
Would those digital offerings be “better” than the live versions? Perhaps in a technical sense.
But nothing beats being there live. Nothing is quite like the feeling of being ensconced in an audience as you share a communal experience. As I’ve told people almost ad nauseum ever since I started covering the arts, being at a live performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event. No creative interpretation is going to be exactly the same, no audience reaction exactly similar. It’s precisely because such a moment can’t be relived that makes it so special.
I’m not advocating sing-along Bach, just to be clear. But I believe the spontaneous hummer in my midst was an expression of something bigger: how the arts are at the core of humanity.
For how many millions of years did humans – an intensely social species – make music and art in communal settings before that role was bequeathed (at least in some people’s eyes) to professional artists? Tens of thousands of generations. Apple Music has been around for what, a year?
Yes, I love reveling in the highest levels of artistic expression. I’ve attended many of the world’s great venues and institutions devoted to such talent and artistry, from Broadway and Carnegie Hall to the Vienna State Opera House to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Visiting these places can be like a religious experience.
Yet if these world-class institutions are high temples of culture, then local arts is one of those robust storefront churches exploding with feeling and commitment on a Sunday morning.
When I sat down to write this column, I considered highlighting a few of the superlative artistic experiences I’ve had in the central San Joaquin Valley during my tenure. But I decided against it. Each year I compile my “Top 20” retrospective list of notable events, and I go through spasms of agony trying to narrow it down each time. How could I multiply that times 16?
So I’ll stick with Bach. Which is fitting. Emil Cioran, a Romanian philosopher and essayist, put it this way: “Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe cannot be regarded a complete failure.”
As Hamre told the audience beforehand, the Mass in B minor is like a great novel in the mold of “War and Peace,” filled with the vast range of human emotions. At one of the highest points, at the beginning of the “Cum Sancto” section, the musicians were unleashed like a high-pressure hose, the sound washing over the audience in a powerful wave. As the singers performed Bach’s vocal gymnastics and the brass rang in triumph, it was a rousing and spiritually-charged moment, the kind that can make your pulse pound.
Then came moments of exquisite tenderness. Near the end of the entire piece, Larsen returned to perform the touching “Agnus Dei.” She brought an electric connection to the music. I watched her face closely as she sang. It was almost as if she were in a trance-like state, moved to the point of near rapture as she sang of the “Lamb of God.” Her voice managed somehow to be both light in touch and heavy in heart.
And, finally, the majestic “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us Thy peace”), with Hamre and the singers building the sound, layer upon layer, as if constructing a musical staircase, then extending a hand to the audience to guide us up those final steps. For Bach, we’re as physically close to Heaven as you can be on this big, flawed world.
I thank you, the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, for taking me on this climb. I feel the same way about the other artists whom I’ve had the pleasure of covering for 16 years.
Looking ahead, I still plan to be in the audience. Maybe, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear me softly humming along.
A special thanks to my Bee colleagues, past and present, who have made this journey so special. If you have arts and entertainment news you want to let The Bee know about, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’ll still be around. Feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com.