Burnt Hills Oratorio Society to turn 40, celebrate with Bach Mass

This year the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society celebrates its 40th anniversary. So director Rand Reeves,

This year the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society celebrates its 40th anniversary. So director Rand Reeves, who usually chooses the chorus’ repertoire, gave the singers a choice as to what to sing for their Saturday concert: Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” or Bach’s B minor Mass.

“I was a little surprised with the Mass choice,” Reeves said. “I thought it would be ‘Elijah.’ ”

Bass Woodrow Bynum, soprano Anne Dugan, mezzo-soprano Susan Fedak and tenor Joshua Bouillon are the soloists.

It was a puzzle as to why the choice was made to perform the Mass, since the chorus had recently performed Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” Reeves said the chorus had sung the Mass in the 1970s but most of the current 95 members are new, which would require more rehearsal time beyond the regular weekly rehearsals because the chorus must sing in five parts.

Burnt Hills Oratorio Society

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Corpus Christi Church, 2001 Rt. 9, Clifton Park

HOW MUCH: $18 (door), $16 (advance)

MORE INFO: 373-8170 or www.bhos.us

The 26-piece orchestra wouldn’t join the chorus until close to concert time. Reeves, too, would need more time to learn a score that he’d never conducted, although, he said, he had sung it. Reeves said he concluded that to sing Bach’s Mass is the ultimate choral experience.

“It’s a glorious piece,” he said.

Contemplative work

The Mass, which is sung in Latin, is too long and too elaborate for a regular church service. Rather, it is music for contemplation. And like many of Bach’s choral works, it has sections that are rearrangements of other of his cantatas.

In 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) got the job of cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, a flourishing commercial city of about 30,000, which was a center for printing and publishing. Bach’s duties were to compose music for all services and festivals for the town’s five churches. Over a 21-year period, he churned out more than 300 cantatas — one a month — plus the various passions, magnificats, motets, oratorios and this Mass.

In 1733, he made a successful presentation of his newly composed Kyrie and Gloria to Frederick Augustus, the Catholic King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, to obtain an honorary appointment to the Electoral Chapel. Bach continued to work on the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei and finished the Mass by 1740.

It is thought that Bach never heard the entire Mass played or a truly good performance of any of his pieces. Even today, Bach’s genius for musical invention for complex harmonies and interweaving counterpoint, his melodies and strong rhythms and demands for balance and clarity, test the best choruses.

“We’re working really, really hard,” Reeves said.

He decided on tempos he thought the chorus can handle and hopes to obtain a lighter, brighter sound from the chorus — more like a light tenor than a dramatic Pavarotti sound, he said.

“I want a good blend and tone quality, for them to sing as a unit and to put energy and life in the music,” Reeves said.

Dedication to the task is not a problem. The chorus was founded in 1970 by Glenn Soellner, the chair of the Burnt Hills High School’s music department, and several Crane School of Music graduates who wanted to sing major works. In the 1980s, James Lazemby, the music director of St. George’s Episcopal Church, took over but moved in 1989.

Meanwhile, Reeves, who had graduated from the Crane School himself in 1971, was living in the area, singing as a tenor with various organizations and running his piano tuning and rebuilding business, crafts he picked up in college. He was also starting to direct church choirs, something he’d done since he was 15 in Princeton, N.J.

“I’d intended to be a music educator, but by 1974 there were no college level jobs open and I wasn’t interested in the high school level,” he said. “I found all the things I wanted to do here.”

His first gig with the BHOS, which numbered about 60 singers, was in 1989 as a guest conductor for Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The next year, Reeves became its music director. He continued to expand the BHOS’s repertoire and when it performed Brahms’ Requiem in 1993, it took on much of its current membership.

“It turned a corner,” Reeves said. “We got new singers and they stuck.”

Musical requirements

The BHOS does not audition singers.

“We only check their musical background,” he said. “We prefer them to audition the BHOS. Is it what they want? Can they sing the parts?”

There are fees to belong. Each singer pays $30 per concert (there are usually two each season), which covers publicity and fees for musicians, Reeves and Al Fedak, who has for years been the accompanist/resident composer. Each singer buys the score — for the Bach, that’s about $15. Two-hour rehearsals are every Tuesday night at the Burnt Hills/Ballston Lake High School.

Ten years ago, the BHOS started an endowment to cover costs to do larger works and began a mentoring program with various local high school choirs that sing with the BHOS during one of the concerts. Two annual vocal awards of $500 each are also given to a high school junior or senior who wants to continue in music.

Upcoming concerts include an all-Fedak program in November, Handel’s “Messiah” in spring 2011, and “Elijah” in 2012.

“It’s a great amount of satisfaction to make a large work presentable and to communicate it to an audience,” Reeves said.

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