STORY WRITTEN BY JOE BARRON
The first time Valentin Radu conducted Bach’s Mass in B Minor, in the 1970s, he was living in Bucharest, the capital of his native Romania, under a communist regime that regarded religious expression as subversion. The Mass — one of the glories of all music — was banned from secular concert halls.
Taking advantage of the uneasy truce between the church and the state, however, Radu organized a Good Friday performance at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, where he served as music director, and was heartened as singers from the Bucharest Opera and instrumentalists from the Bucharest Philharmonic flocked to him, eager for the chance to take part in a sacred masterpiece.
“They weren’t very happy about it,” Radu recalled in a telephone interview, referring to the government, “but they could not prevent it.”
In the 1990s, after Radu settled in Philadelphia, he and the Ama Deus Ensemble, the period-instrument group he founded, made a tradition of presenting the Mass on Good Friday. This year they are reviving that tradition with two Eastertide performances: the first on Palm Sunday, March 29, at the Church of St. Katharine of Siena in Wayne, and second on Good Friday, April 3, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.
For Radu, the Mass and the season are linked, and he brings a great deal of emotion, both personal and religious, to the performances.
“It’s a very important day, the most important day of the year, even more than Easter,” he said. “And so I am always extremely emotional on Good Friday to start with.”
Bach, a Lutheran, did not compose his Latin, Catholic Mass for Good Friday, or any other occasion. He assembled it in pieces over the final two decades of his life, from 1724 to about 1749, the year before he died. Much of it he refashioned from other music written as far back as 1714. The result was not only an outpouring of faith. It was a compendium of every compositional technique Bach knew, and of course, he knew them all.
“It is the most elaborate of any of the Western world’s Mass settings,” Radu said. “That includes Mozart. That includes Beethoven. The only one comparable in size would be the Verdi Requiem. In many ways, it’s like a testament of Bach’s legacy. It’s a work of an amazing magnitude that is far beyond anything he wrote.”
But words like “elaborate” and “magnitude,” while accurate, do not get at the many intimate pleasures to be heard in the score. The forces Bach probably had in mind for the Mass were modest by today’s standards, though it is hard to be sure, since he never heard the work as a whole. For Ama Deus’ performances, Radu has gathered an orchestra of about 30 musicians and a chorus of 40, somewhat more than the 25 singers Bach usually had at his disposal.
“And the reason for that is the space that we have to perform in,” Radu said. “We try to be sticklers to the times of the composers. We don’t try to duplicate the Philadelphia Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic.”
The vocal soloists win the Wayne performance will be soprano Megan Monaghan, mezzo-soprano Karina Sweeney, tenor Timothy Bentch and bass André Courville. At the Kimmel Center, Julie-Ann Green will step in as soprano, and the mezzo will be Jody Kidwell.
“I’m very excited that I’m changing a little bit,” Radu said. “For this one, I’m, changing the soprano and also.”
Radu affectionately refers to Bentch, a native of Missouri, as his “warhorse,” his go-to tenor for large pieces such as the Mass and Handel’s “Messiah.” Courville, a graduate student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, is new to the Ama Deus Ensemble,
“He’s an amazing bass baritone making his debut with my group this year,” Radu said. “I’m very excited to hear him.”
Sweeney, too, is making a debut with the group, appearing as a soloist for the first time after singing in the chorus for a number of years.
“She’s a wonderful alto voice,” Radu said, “a very rich voice.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Ama Deus Ensemble performs the Mass in B-Minor of Johann Sebastian Bach under the direction of Valentin Radu.
Two performances are planned:
Where: St. Katharine of Siena Church, Lancaster Avenue (Route 30) at Aberdeen Avenue, Wayne.
When: Sunday, March 29, at 4 p.m.
Tickets: $25; $20 senior citizens; $10 students (plus box-office fees). Call (610) 688-2800 or check www.VoxAmaDeus.org.
Where: Broad and Spruce streets, Philadelphia.
When: Friday, April 3, at 8 p.m., the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.
Tickets: $20; $40; $70. Call (215) 893-1999 or check www.KimmelCenter.org.