Among the two titans of Baroque music, Handel had his “Hallelujah!” chorus and Bach had his “Hosanna.”
But while Handel’s famous choral number from “The Messiah” is recognized by millions, only a relatively select group of classical music aficionados recognize the Bach.
That may change — locally, at least — this evening, when the “Hosanna” chorus, along with the rest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s two-hour, 20-minute “Mass in B-minor,” will be given its New Orleans debut by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, with the New Orleans Vocal Arts Chorale and five soloists.
The one-night-only performance will take place at First Baptist Church New Orleans at 7:30 p.m.
The Mass will be sung in Latin with English translations projected onto a screen.
Considered Bach’s magnum opus, completed a year before the composer’s death in 1750, the B-minor Mass received little notice at first and was not publicly performed in its entirety for 110 years.
Since then, however, it has come to be regarded by musical authorities as one of the greatest compositions in the classical canon.
Broken down into five distinct movements, including the Prelude, the Mass combines elements of Catholicism and Lutheranism, the two prevailing faiths of Germany in Bach’s time.
LPO Musical Director Carlos Miguel Prieto, now in his eighth season with the orchestra, will be conducting the performance.
He has presented the Mass three times in other locales and debuting it here has been a major objective for him.
“This is one of the greatest masterpieces in the (classical) literature,” Prieto said. “It’s a majestic work. It is a very important milestone for the orchestra because they have never presented it in concert, and I think it is an essential piece of work to perform.”
In true Baroque style, the B-minor Mass features swiftly bowed strings, blaring horns and thundering tympani during the musical and choral passages expressing exultation.
These are balanced by softer passages featuring flutes and woodwinds during the more introspective sections of the individual movements.
Comparisons to the oratorios of Handel are inevitable, even though the two men composed independently of each other in two different locales and two different languages.
But there are differences, as Prieto is quick to point out. “‘Messiah’ is a very public piece, written to be sung by a congregation and Bach’s B-minor Mass is written to be sung by a chorus for virtuoso voices,” he said.
“In the Bach B-minor Mass there is a separation of scope and of difficulty,” Prieto said. “B-minor is a very virtuosic, technically complicated piece. In ‘Messiah,’ everything is difficult, too, but the difficulty in it is more in the arias and the individual voices.”
The New Orleans presentation of the Mass features five soloists: sopranos Sarah Shafer and Teresa Wakim, mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and bass-baritone Kevin Deas.
Shackleton, a New Orleans native now living in Dallas, said she is “very excited” to be returning to her home town and singing with the LPO for the first time. Last seen here this past fall singing the role of Mercedes in the New Orleans Opera production of “Carmen,” she has two solo arias and a duet with one of the sopranos.
“Technically I have found Bach to be a composer who demands ultimate breath control,” Shackleton said. “I feel like it’s a meditation on the art of breathing. That’s been my main challenge and as well as joy to practice with this piece.”
Shackleton was a student of Ellen Frohnmayer while doing her undergrad work at Loyola University.
“I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity to sing this amazing piece of music with all of these wonderful New Orleans musicians,” she said.