Banchetto Musicale builds loyal following

Just before last Friday's sold-out performance of Bach's B Minor Mass by Boston's Banchetto Musicale, one man, bundled against the elements, held up a sign ``Help! I need Banchetto ticket.'' An amazing phenomenon, considering that Banchetto Musicale, now in its 14th season, presents scaled-down performances on period instruments for a work that, in this case, modern audiences have been conditioned to experience on a grand scale.

But therein lies the uniqueness of this dynamic group of singers and instrumentalists, each one an exciting artist. Although the first-chair list reads like a who's who of internationally known baroque instrumentalists, everyone carries his or her own weight. No one gets lost in the crowd.

The result is a clarity, vitality, and sheer exuberance that has audiences responding in kind. You don't walk out after a Banchetto performance; you dance.

But music director Martin Pearlman, who conducted the work at Jordan Hall, says that Banchetto Musicale should not be categorized as an ``early music'' group: ``I want to do a concert, not a history lesson.''

His approach, in fact, is essentially modern, in that ``we want to see the past in its own terms.''

The goal is to peel away layers of time and legend, to apprehend the real Bach and bring to life not only his music but the spirit of the age itself. Bach, after all, was an overworked Kapellmeister who rushed to rehearsals for Sunday service with the ink still wet on the score, dealing with the frustrations of inadequate time and performers. Some of his chamber works were performed outdoors in summer, and inside a noisy coffeehouse in winter.

As one of the greatest improvisers in music history, Bach gave his music a spontaneous, innovative quality that might fit better in a jazz club than in a formal concert hall. Consequently, it is not merely the fact that Banchetto performs on period instruments that makes them ``authentic,'' but their unfailing freshness, rhythmic vitality, and a sense that they are re-creating.

Interestingly, Bach himself never performed the Mass in its entirety or even gave it a title. The first complete performance was 100 years after his death. Actually, the Mass is a pastiche of sacred choral works composed over a 30-year period, a melding of genres that Mr. Pearlman underscored with a strong sense of closure after sections, as in the final chorus of the Symbolum Nicenum, pauses for tuning, and, just before the final Osanna, the splitting of the chorus on opposite sides of the stage for antiphonal effect. (The Osanna was originally a cantata.)

What Pearlman is after is loving restoration that, as in a painting, reveals original colors, textures, and most important, meaning. The tendency has been to approach Bach with seriousness, reverence, even awe. But Bach was neither a pedant nor an ascetic, and his religiosity was an affirmation of both faith and joy. For Daniel Stepner, concertmaster, ``Tempi that are too slow make the Mass sound too staid and `churchy.' Actually, it is a mural - all of life is in it. It has the sensuousness of Debussy, the playfulness of Haydn, the searching, probing, chromaticism of Bartok.''

The result of Pearlman's approach is clarity and a fineness of detail that permit the listener to at once perceive and integrate Bach's rich orchestration, the complexity of his counterpoint, and the marvel of his logic.

Unlike most early-music conductors, what Pearlman seeks is control and vocal color in his soloists:

``I don't look for a white sound. Some people think that baroque vocal technique means no vibrato. But even in the Renaissance, singers used vibrato - just not all the time.''

Indeed, what marked the soloists in this performance was their sheer joy in singing. Soprano Sharon Baker and mezzo Janice Felty were radiant; Frank Kelley's conviction was uplifting, James Maddalena's smooth, rich baritone spine-tingling, Pamela Dellal's alto a warm chiaroscuro, and Kenneth Fitch's (substituting for Steven Rickarts) countertenor unfailingly pure.

The lovely vocal-instrumental duets were enhanced by the delicate baroque timbres and virtuosity of Christopher Krueger, flute; Marc Schachman, oboe; Jean Rife, natural horn - always with a sensitivity that creates dialogue rather than mere background color.

But what most characterized this performance was the kaleidoscope of human experience that justifies performing this great work in its entirety. The members of Banchetto Musicale are at once old and young: old enough to plumb the depths of the great mystery that is Bach's art, young enough to convey his spirit by making ``a joyful noise unto the Lord.''

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