You see the posters all over major European cities, especially during tourist season: classical music concerts in famous local churches. "Tonight, 8 PM, in the Church of Our Lady: Mozarts Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Night Music")." Or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or perhaps Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It’s always a well-beloved classical chestnut, recognizable to all. The performers are usually an ensemble you’ve never heard of, like the "Glorious Classical Strings," or the "Soloists of Rome," or something similar.
I don’t want to be too snobbish here: there’s nothing wrong with performing classical music in glorious churches for the benefit of tourists. I’ve been to a few of these concerts myself, since that might be the only thing going when you hit the city. But the performers tend to be either students supplementing their income, or rather bedraggled-looking adults. The problem is that they have to play the same pieces — popular, recognizable classical hits — 3-4 times a week, with no real variation in the program. How much verve and sizzle can you bring to your 3,467th performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?
So I was a little suspicious when I saw a listing for a performance of Bach’s "Mass in B," in the Church of Notre Dame, by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. My fears were dispelled when I hit the web. The ensemble is a permanent small orchestra with a website and a music director I’ve heard of; in fact I’ve got recordings by him. Further, a performance of the the Mass in B Minor is not something you can just casually throw together; you need a small orchestra, vocal soloists, and a double-choir, and the Mass lasts almost two full hours.
Notre Dame was completely full for this concert; I showed up about 20 minutes before the concert, and got one of the last seats. The last light of the day slowly faded from the stained-glass as an old man with long white hair and a silver crucifix pinned to his left lapel approached the microphone. I assume he was a priest. He gave a brief disquisition on the glories of the B Minor Mass, making liberal use of the word glorieuse, spiriturelle, and profondeur. Then the small orchestra took the stage. Behind them the chorus (the Maitrise de Notre Dame) stood in four rows, clad in royal-blue robes.
As soon as the music started, my fears were dispelled. The chorus showed its mastery with a measured, dignified opening Kyrie, and the vocal soloists were all first-rate (with the exception of one slightly wobbly soprano). The conductor, John Nelson, kept everything humming along with crisp, sprung rhythms, and the strings played without vibrato. What most impressed me most was the orchestra itself. The B Minor Mass has numerous tricky solo parts for bassoon, double-bass, violin, and flute. When these arias came, individual orchestra members stood up to form a more intimate, chamber-like feel, and delivered expert, nuanced performances. The bassoonist and double-bass player were especially lively and vivid. At the end of the concert, after the majestic Dona Nobis Pacem that closes the Mass (accompanied by the Organ), the reverberations took at least five full seconds to die away.
This was the best performance of the B Minor Mass I’ve ever seen. You don’t have to take my word for it; there was a camer team there filming the entire performance for a broadcast on Arte, and it will be released as a DVD as well. I was impressed enough that I’ll consider buying some recordings by the Ensemble Orchestral, if you’d like to as well, look here. Next time you’re in Paris, think about taking in a concert by the EOP.