Orchestra Iowa is ending its 2016-17 season with an epic concert three decades in the making for Maestro Timothy Hankewich and two decades in the making for Johann Sebastian Bach’s labor of love, his B minor Mass.

For the sweeping work, the orchestra is joining forces with Chorale Midwest, under the direction of Bradley Barrett, and four national soloists — including University of Iowa graduate Jessica Pray, a Johnston native who also has performed with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

The concerts will be presented Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids and Sunday afternoon at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.

“I sang this as a chorister in my 20s. It’s been my ambition been to direct it ever since,” Hankewich said. “It’s been 30 years in the making, and consumed my entire summer last year.”

It’s that challenging.

“Johann Sebastian Bach is the greatest composer to have ever lived — hands down, end of story,” Hankewich said. “One of the many reasons that makes him remarkable, (is that) his music exemplified the perfect union and synthesis of intellect, soul and musical structure with spiritual enlightenment.”

For this particular two-hour piece, “the length, scope breadth of the work makes it epic,” Hankewich said. “It represents his last will and testament.”

Bach, a German composer who lived from 1685 to 1750, decided to write the Mass in the midpoint of his career, Hankewich said, and wrote half of it “fairly short order.” The Kyrie and Gloria segments were used in Lutheran liturgy, so he “composed with a practical use in mind.”

“As he became older, he wanted to complete the mass in its entirety for posterity,” Hankewich said. “The piece developed over a 20-year period of time and represents the best of his work. He often borrowed from his earlier cantatas and improved them for this work, but for him, I don’t think he ever expected it to be performed in its entirety. It was a labor of love and a spiritual journey.”

And it’s an intense labor for the instrumentalists, too.

The work contains a French horn solo in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus bass aria that “still strikes fear in the heart of every professional horn soloist,” and is considered “one of the most treacherous horn solos in the repertoire,” Hankewich said. Trumpet and strings also get a workout, and the oboe players get to use the lower-pitched oboe d’amore, rare enough that the orchestra had to rent the instruments for the concert.

The vocalists “have their work cut out for them,” as well, he said.

“I’ve always known, through personal experience, that the music of Bach is exceptionally hard to sing. Magnify that by 10 when you come to this work. It’s easily the most difficult vocally to sing in all of his choral works. It’s unmerciful, in that it requires almost instrumental agility, and rarely is there a place to breathe. The singing is incredibly acrobatic and athletic.”

The attention to detail required to make the instruments and vocals sing in sync commanded the maestro’s full attention last summer. It’s his own labor of love, designed to create for the audiences “an uplifting experience that emphasizes that music is more than just entertainment, but nourishment for the soul,” he said. “As a recovering trumpet player, all the festive movements depicting joy, gratitude and pomp and ceremony ... just make my heart soar.”  

It’s an epic work for the ages, completed the year before Bach’s death.

“He was trying to create something that reached back into time while creating something that was timeless,” Hankewich said. “The musical styles that he uses employ techniques that were fostered as early as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and yet some of the styles he incorporated in the arias are of the contemporary musical styles of the day.

“It was very much a fusion of looking forward and backward to create something that was timeless.


WHAT: Orchestra Iowa Presents: “Epic Bach: The B Minor Mass”
CEDAR RAPIDS: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (6/3), The Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; $16 to $53,
CORALVILLE: 2:30 p.m. Sunday (6/4), Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St.; $29
TICKETS: Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/epic-bach/; $10 youth and student tickets at (319) 366-8203