Internationally renowned conductor leads the San Francisco Concert Chorale in Bach’s Mass In B Minor

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

On Saturday, May 10th, internationally celebrated Bach conductor Helmuth Rilling will help celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the San Francisco Concert Chorale by leading them in the glorious Mass In B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. From 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm at Trinity Episcopal Church (Bush @ Gough Streets, San Francisco) and under the banner of THE BACH EXPERIENCE, the event includes a master class facilitated by Mr. Rilling. The focus is on the B minor Mass and will provide a rich insight to the significant contribution Bach has made with his sublime masterpiece.

A second performance happens on Saturday, May 31st at 8:00 pm at Mission Dolores Basilica (Dolores @ 16th Street, San Francisco). The Mass will be conducted by the Concert Chorale’s Artistic Director, John Emory Bush, and accompanied by the finest musicians from orchestras throughout the Bay Area. The performance will include the 35 member chamber choir, soloists and orchestra. Though many large choirs perform this masterpiece, the Chorale will present the Mass in the kind of intimate setting that reflects the composer’s original intent.

It was my privilege to interview Conductor Helmuth Rilling whose long history with the B minor Mass spans many decades. Maestro Rilling received the CANNES CLASSICAL AWARD in 2001 for the EDITION BACHAKADEMIE GESAMTSET,a collection of 172 CDs of the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach, released in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Rilling marked his 9th tour of Israel in January of 2006 with the GÄCHINGER KANTOREI STUTTGART. In February 2004, in honor of his contribution to Christian-Jewish understanding, Helmuth Rilling was awarded the Otto Hirsch Medal by the city of Stuttgart’s Society for Christian Jewish Cooperation and the Israelite Religious Community.

Helmuth Rilling: As we all know, the B minor Mass is one of the great oratorios of J.S. Bach. It is his last oratorio. It is even his last large work. I think it is the summation of what he has done during his lifetime. It is the first time for Bach that he composes the complete text of the Mass and, of course, it is an opportunity for him to show what he has done in his years before. Especially working on his many cantatas and other oratorios. So, we have the summation of what he has done before. The Mass contains many pieces which he has written before – movements from his cantatas that he has re-worked. It is a great masterpiece. Bach has never heard the piece during his life. It was never performed. It is a sort of heritage to mankind.

Seán Martinfield: You have produced five recordings of the B minor Mass.

HR: Five! That many?

SM: Yes, I’m looking at them. It’s the one recorded in 2000 that is very much praised. Of course, it is always an honor to do another recording – but are they all the same arrangement?


HR: I have conducted the B minor Mass many, many times. I can say hundreds of times. So, with the experience of performing that piece, your knowledge about it grows. Of course, you always change – from one performance to the next and from one recording to another. In many ways – in regards to the tempos, the dynamics, and to articulation – this I have done. Every performance you do of such a piece needs to be new. You need to do things that, perhaps, you have not done before. This is in details, but also in regards to the overall architecture. The architecture especially is so important. What kind of weight does a given movement in the Mass have? And how should you balance the high points and combinations. In this regard, I always have changed and still change.

SM: During the coming year, will you be conducting the Mass somewhere else?

HR: We are going to be doing the B minor Mass as the opening concert of the Oregon Bach Festival. There will be two performances – one in Portland and one in Eugene. This is the beginning of this year’s Festival at the end of June. After that, I will do the piece several times in Europe.

SM: Anticipating the many solo vocalists you will be dealing with, is there an on-going or inherent difficulty within the composition that presents a problem or challenge to any of the solo voices, i.e., to the soprano or tenor, etc.?

Maestro Helmuth Rilling

HR: There are five soloists within the Mass – two sopranos, a contralto, tenor, and bass. Sometimes, one has problems with the bass. There are two bass arias in the B minor Mass. One is extremely low; the other is a real baritone aria. There are only a few singers who can do well with both arias. Sometimes I have chosen to have a baritone singing the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” and the “Quoniam” sung by a low bass. But, if you are lucky, you can find someone who can do both well.

SM: There are occasions when a countertenor is substituted for the contralto – for example, in the “Agnus Dei”. How do you feel about that?

HR: I am not a great friend of this; it is usually done with contraltos. I know that sometimes it is done with countertenors, but Bach did not have that kind of voice in his time.

SM: In your history of reconciliation and through the many awards you have received, how do you tell a young person these days that peace and understanding and communication can come about through music and with a work such as the B minor Mass?

HR: I remember many times that we had the B minor Mass on tours or on concert series within other countries. Of course, music in general is a wonderful bridge for the understanding between human beings of totally different backgrounds – be it national backgrounds or religious or language backgrounds. Music can bridge that. Bach’s B minor Mass is a very central piece. Central because the text of the Mass is expressing in a very concentrated and deep way the Christian faith. And when a composer like Bach composes this text – it is a monument – to make this understood to other people who perhaps come from different backgrounds than my German Protestant background. This is always a challenge. I have often enjoyed exchanging thoughts about this piece with other people, especially with young people.

SM: Is there a portion of the Mass that is your absolute favorite?

HR: The Mass, as a complete piece, is so wonderful, so miraculous. It is hard to say that one piece is more interesting than the other. Of course, what Bach calls the “Symbolum Nicenum” – this is the text of the Credo – is for him a combination in the composition. There you have these three central orchestral / choral movements – the Et incarnates, Crucifixus, and Et resurrexit. You could call this the culmination point of the Mass.

SM: The musicologists always talk about the complexity of the fugue in the “Kyrie”. What do you say to them?

HR: Complexity is, maybe, a strange word. It’s just a wonderful, large view bridge that Bach puts at the opening of the Mass. And this expression of a pleading of mercy to God stands at the beginning of this large composition. It speaks very much about Bach’s own faith – that he is setting at the beginning such an extended, but highly expressive piece.

Helmuth Rilling with student choir, Toronto

SM: What advice do you give young people today? Here in California, in San Francisco – I am very aware of how poor music education is and how much it is dismissed. What would be something that would motivate a young person of high school age to come to the Bach B minor Mass? What do you think might grab them and make them say, “I’m going to leave Walt Disney behind and go for the Classical Repertoire?”

HR: It’s a difficult question. You need to get young people interested in this kind of music. This needs education. Parents are responsible for the education of their children and they should certainly try to expose them to this wonderful part of our musical culture. It takes time to get involved with this kind of music. But, I have often seen young people, without any special education, find the music of Bach very exciting and have enjoyed it very much. This has happened not only in the United States and Canada, but also countries in Asia. I was in Taipei three weeks ago. We did the first performance ever of the B minor Mass. We had a hall that was completely full with only young people. They were fanatic about this kind of music and liked it very much.

SM: What was it for you as a young man? What finally motivated you to commit your life to this pursuit of study?

HR: I come from a musical family and was educated in Classical music from my childhood. I am very lucky that I had this situation. Also, my family is one of Lutheran ministers. So, there was always a strong interest on my side for sacred music. This, of course, leads you directly to Johann Sebastian Bach.

SM: Yours is an amazing experience. So many times you hear the reverse – where other people would have rebelled and gone – let’s say, into Rock music – to get away from Classical music or even an affiliation with the church. Was there ever a celebrity or another conductor, perhaps a singer, who influenced you? I know that you studied with Leonard Bernstein for a while.

HR: Every young person needs good teachers. I was lucky to have had many good teachers. Very important for me was Leonard Bernstein. I studied with him in New York City.

SM: How did he contribute to the accumulation of your knowledge?

HR: It was his personal understanding of Music and how to do it. I always enjoyed him and learned how to work with his musicians. He was not a dictator, but someone who was a friend to his musicians. He sometimes took their advice and, of course, gave them his advice. What came out of that was a very wonderful and personal music-making.

SM: Did he acquaint you with a certain sense of showmanship?

HR: He was, in some ways, a showman. This was not the important thing for him. The important thing was always the music.


To purchase tickets on-line: THE BACH EXPERIENCE
To purchase tickets to a special Benefit Reception with Helmuth Rilling: RECEPTION.
Meet Helmuth Rilling in an intimate setting after the Lecture. Wine and Hors d’oeuvres will be served. Saturday, May 10th, 4:30 – 6:00 pm Saint Mary’s Cathedral – Event Center, 1111 Gough Street, San Francisco. Limited Free Parking.

Add these recordings of Helmuth Rilling to your Classical Library:
BACH: Mass in B minor, BWV 232
BACH: Cantatas, BWV 23-26
BACH: St. Matthew Passion
HAYDN: The Creation

For more information on: THE TORONTO BACH FESTIVAL
For more information on: THE OREGON BACH FESTIVAL

Visit Seán on YouTube
Lorena Feijóo – A Look at “Giselle” with Seán Martinfield
SAMSON & DELILAH – Meet Seán Martinfield

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@gmail.com.


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