One of the best concerts I've heard in a long time was a performance of Handel's Messiah by the UC Chamber Chorus and the University Chorus just before Christmas in 2013. I was totally blown away.
Well, they're back. And this time they're tackling an even more ambitious project: Bach's monumental masterpiece, the B Minor Mass, which they'll perform with a baroque orchestra on April 10 and 11 at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall.
It's the first time they've sung the B Minor Mass since 1999, and it might very well be the last because it's such a mammoth undertaking. It's so huge, Bach himself never heard it performed in his lifetime.
"With all those fugues, it's a real challenge to give each one a different personality," says Professor of Music Marika Kuzma, who conducts both the Chamber Chorus and the University Chorus.
But it's worth the trouble because the B Minor Mass is so gorgeous, especially the exquisite Dona Nobis Pacem movement, which is one of the true glories of Western music.
By the way, the "B Minor" in the title is a misnomer. Minor keys often imply lugubrious music, and this work is anything but. Most of the movements are actually in D Major.
"And nothing says 'joy' like D Major," says Kuzma.
Good thing, too, because the mass is two hours long, and that would be a long time to feel sad. Be sure and stay to the end because that's when the Dona Nobis Pacem occurs.
"We're saving the best for last," she says.
The B Minor Mass has special meaning for Kuzma because it was the piece that changed her career.
"I was playing violin in the student orchestra when I was a freshman at North Carolina," she says. "Then I heard the B Minor Mass, and it was so amazing I thought the ceiling had come off. I immediately dropped the orchestra and switched to chorus, instead."
It's impossible to overstate the high level of musicality in both the Chamber Chorus and the University Chorus, even though the members are still college kids. Many have gone on to sing with some of the country's finest baroque ensembles and choruses, including the Philharmonia Baroque, American Bach Soloists and the National Cathedral Choir.
Several of them will be flying in from as far away as New York, Los Angeles and Florida for the two concerts to sing some of the solos. Partly, it's a tribute to their love for the music. But it's also a tribute to their devotion to Kuzma, who has always gone out of her way to bring out her students' best.
She conducts the same way Seurat painted. Instead of making the singers twist their throats into pretzels to get the tonality she's looking for, as many other conductors do, she re-positions them strategically next to each other in such a way that the combination of their voices achieves the same effect, without trashing their larynxes.
Both concerts start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on a sliding scale, with discounts for students, seniors and retired Cal faculty and staff. You can get them at the door - assuming it hasn't been sold out, as it was last time - or ahead of time at tickets.berkeley.edu or by calling 510-642-9988.