Sunday's performance of Bach's incomparable B minor Mass was conceived by Thomas Swan, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, as a dual tribute to the 60th and 65th anniversaries, respectively, of Kleinhans Music Hall and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra insisted that the celebration also be extended to Swan, for his "vision and leadership" of the chorus for 22 years.
There were, however, some potholes on the road to realization of this high-minded and well deserved three-way tribute. Swan has taken a year's leave of absence from the chorus for health reasons, and the performance was entrusted to guest conductor Tamara Brooks. But in early February, she suddenly withdrew for "unexpected health concerns." With only two weeks to take charge, J. Reilly Lewis, a noted Bach specialist from Washington, D.C., stepped in as conductor.
That is an awfully short time to pull together a performance of the formidable B minor Mass, let alone to put one's own personal imprint on the score. Under these conditions, Sunday's performance must be judged as professional, more than workmanlike, but seldom inspired. Rarely did some interpretive insight or felicity of execution make the music jump off the page.
In the opening Kyrie attacks were a bit soft, but Lewis' clear sense of authority kept the inexorable line moving with a feeling of suppleness, while the basses laid down a solid foundation underneath. Here and elsewhere, a little more heft and polish was needed from the tenor section.
In the Gloria the sopranos and altos executed the fast melismatic passages with good lightness and mobility, while the "Gratias agimus tibi" built up to a grandly affirmative conclusion. However, at the racehorse tempo chosen for the "Cum sancto spiritu" the chorus sounded quite mechanical, with little feeling of plasticity or phrasing.
One of the most exciting choral moments was the suspenseful diminuendo at the end of "Crucifixus," which virtually lunged into the brilliant splendor of the "Et resurrexit." Here the music did jump off the page.
The chorus also achieved a satisfying, ecstatic reach in the descending sustained lines on the phrase "Sanctus, Dominus."
Basically good orchestral playing was occasionally flecked by attacks that were not together, and in an otherwise uplifting concluding "Dona nobis pacem" the string phrasing was at odds with that of the chorus.
The vocal soloists held up their end quite well, but in general seemed to be having a hard time staying out in front of the orchestra. Tenor Daniel Clark Smith's voice was expressive but quite light, heard to good effect only in the meditative and thinly scored "Benedictus." Baritone Brian Zunner was his usual reliable self, projecting his well focused voice admirably in the "Quoniam tu solus."
Soprano Janet Obermeyer and mezzo Mary Ann Valaitis blended well in duets and projected a fine sense of style, but again seemed too often to be a part of the orchestral fabric.