Spring Concert Wrap-Up

I needed a day to think about yesterday afternoon’s concert before writing a wrap-up.  There was so much to ponder, and I also wanted some audience statistics, which were tabulated and arrived this afternoon.   The concert was a grand success by every measure:  it was profoundly rewarding to offer this challenging program, and the five-minute ovation that followed from the near-capacity crowd was deeply humbling.  I think the concert also exhibited several enviable synergies throughout our organization, and pulled together several facets of our mission in a new and compelling way.

For one, it was a treat to be joined by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, with whom were are sharing in joint due-dilligance for the possibility of a merger.  The kids were fantastic – it was lovely to have them join us for Bach’s epic motet, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227.  They brought lovely color and tone to the chorale movements of the motet, and we greatly appreciated their energy.  Likewise, it’s hard to imagine MASS without their youthful exuberance, particularly in the Simple Song and the Sanctus.  Diane DiLabio, a member of the Chorus had an extended duet with Isaiah Bell at the end of the work, and her singing was breathtakingly beautiful and remarkably poised.

Our timpanist, Dr. Christopher Hanning, brought four of his students from West Chester University to help him with the extensive and challenging percussion parts in the Bernstein.  As someone who enjoyed playing percussion in high school, watching them devour the challenges of the score and play with such finesse and bravery was such a thrill.   In particular, Jennifer Cho’s commanding presence at the timpani during the Gloria was absolutely enthralling (I had to labor not to watch, as the choral part of that movement was daunting enough).

It was strange to see the orchestra personnel listed in the program, and see parts for electric guitar and electric bass.  Particular kudos to bassist Mark Wade, who brought our continuo group into the 21st century.  It was also a treat to have Lehigh University’s orchestral conductor Eugene Albulescu at the piano- like the percussionists, Eugene knows how to count, and he got a demanding workout.  He also brought out many colors and textures in the piano part.  Eugene has been a stalwart supporter of The Choir – in fact, our Spring Concert of 2015 was an exhilarating collaboration with the LU Philharmonic, principal players from the Bach Festival Orchestra, and some talented choirs in the community.  What a pleasure to have our accomplished friend in our orchestra.

Speaking of the orchestra, it was such a delight to hear our fine assembly of baroque experts demonstrate another facet of their artistry in the kaleidoscopic music of Lenny.  There are moments of such solemnity, then moments that evoke his other works, including West Side Story, the  Chichester Psalms, and even Candide.  They were spectacular instrumental shape-shifters, always exuberant, tremendously flexible, and full of sensitivity to one another and the singers.  Tom Goeman’s continuo playing (on the piano for the Bach, no less) and the organ for the Bernstein, was suave and sensitive, as well.  Hearing him enter the texture in Simple Song, added a timeless quality to music, deeply enriching the colorful sonorities.

We were delighted to welcome the fearless coloratura soprano, Barbara Kilduff, to ascend into the stratosphere in Bernstein’s punishing and aleatoric Kyrie. It’s a page of her singing alone at the top of her range (with just a tiny bit of color from percussion), and then the choir’s sopranos join, in another key, and begin some challenging Bernsteinian ululations in Greek.  Barbara was commanding, unflappable, and tremendously compelling as she deftly managed the challenges of her part.

One of The Choir’s tenors, Lane McCord, joined Isaiah in a similarly difficult moment at the end of the sing, I don’t know.  Last heard as Prince Charming in Warren Martin’s The True Story of Cinderella, Lane acquitted himself, again, marvelously.  I was also so proud of my colleagues in The Choir, who dove into this challenging music with great purpose and courage (it’s maybe a little out of our collective wheelhouse, after all…).

Even with such a long list of acknowledgments, there remain two individuals who took this performance to rarified heights.  The first, the exceptional tenor, Isaiah Bell.  Last year, we all marveled at his singing of the Erwäge from the St. John Passion.  I had a really hard time imagining it sung better, and have combed my extensive recordings of the work to verify.  I knew that he’d do the Bernstein very well, but also knew that the tenor solos in the work usually go to someone a little more disposed towards the musical theatre side of the vocal spectrum.  Would someone with Isaiah’s polish and refinement sound at home in that neighborhood? The answer is another question:  will anyone else ever sing it as well as he did?  Seriously.  He was completely uncompromising, and every facet of his artistry was put to use for the purpose of communicating Bernstein’s conflict between faith and doubt.  If the libretto can feel a little clunky and dated, it was also completely redeemed by Isaiah’s fearless performance.  As a church musician, I can be pretty snobby about this terrain, and when Isaiah navigated the trope in the Credo, ascending higher and higher in his range, with the full orchestra swinging beneath him, fairly taunting the Almighty like a latter-day psalmist,  it was one of the most powerful musical moments of my year, full stop.  Please mark my words: Isaiah is already well on his way to being one of the great tenors of our time.

As a preface to my last plaudit, I recall the time one of my college professors remarked that putting on a fully-staged performance of MASS at his church in Los Angeles, “damn near killed me,” and that the event closed that chapter of his career.  At the time, I thought it was a slightly strange hill do die on, but now I think I understand.  MASS is a powerful reflection of Bernstein’s musical and spiritual psyche, and to harness its energy is to come to grips with all of the various facets of the man, himself.  We sometimes forget that Bernstein the composer was only equalled in talent, genius, and stature by Bernstein the pedagogue, and Bernstein the interpreter, and Bernstein, the exhilarating and (at times) maddening human being.  The inner-strife and conflict can be seen on a continuum with those of his own idols, Mahler and Beethoven.  In a sense, MASS can very much feel a product of its time, but, on Sunday afternoon, it felt both timeless and timely.  For that, we have Greg Funfgeld to thank – his vision in taking this on, in challenging himself to master all of the rhythmic permutations and complexity of the score, in connecting with the composer with his trademark depth and insight, and in shepherding a group of musicians who don’t often perform this kind of music, reaped extraordinary dividends.  I hope he found that the lengthy ovation at the work’s conclusion conveyed some sense of our collective gratitude for his leadership on this remarkable musical and spiritual journey.

Steve Siegel covered this concert extensively in the Morning Call, with a preview, a local color piece, and, finally, a glowing review.  We are most grateful for his enthusiastic previews and his insightful and fair reviews. Arts coverage in markets the size of the Lehigh Valley are often a luxury, and we’re so lucky to have Steve cover us.

 

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Bach at Noon, February 14th: The True Story of Cinderella

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One of the great pleasures of this past summer was the opportunity to sing Warren Martin’s The True Story of Cinderella, at both our July Bach at Noon, and at the Hermann Wiemer Vineyards, in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY, in early August (the cast is pictured above among Wiemer’s riesling vines).  We’re going to be repeating the work in a special Valentine’s Day performance, this coming Tuesday, February 14th, at the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem.  Please plan to arrive around 11:30 – seats will go fast!

Warren Martin thought of himself as a jack of all musical trades, and spent most of his professional life at Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, NJ, an institution he entered as an undergraduate at the age of 15.  He served several roles, there, including the head of the Graduate School, conductor, composer, singer, coach, and master pedagogue.  One year, for the College’s May Day celebration, he presented his comic oratorio, The True Story of Cinderella, to a somewhat astonished campus community.  His prodigious skills were well-known, however, there sheer pleasure and fun of Cinderella were unexpected from one of Westminster’s most frighteningly-talented musical savants.  With music in a broad range of operatic and musical theater styles, and a pun-y, delightful text that he wrote himself, performances of Cinderella are a time-honored tradition on the Westminster  campus, and alumni of the school have spread the gospel of this work throughout the country.  Our conductor, Greg Funfgeld, studied with Professor Martin, and is an eloquent advocate for this music (he will also serve as narrator for the performance).

Martin’s range of influences for the piece seems to extend from Baroque contrapuntalists (counterpoint is utilized in a trio during which Cinderella’s wicked step-siblings and step mother are preparing themselves for a ball) to Puccini, from early Disney composers to an uncanny prediction of some of Andrew Lloyd Webbers best melodies (the central love aria of the work sounds eerily like “The Music of the Night,” from Phantom – Warren was there first, though, this work dates from 1955).  The text is full of whimsy, puns, and much wordplay, and the vocal demands on the singers are quite formidable (except for the part I will be singing as the Royal Herald, a recurring joke peppered throughout the composition).  Perhaps the most challenging part of the whole enterprise, though, is the piano part, which requires a virtuoso player.  I have to say, over the years, I’ve seen many a pianist bang his or her way through, with varying degrees of success.  In our case, Tom Goeman has learned every note, extremely carefully, and meets all of the work’s considerable demands with panache and elegance, and just the right amount of wit.  One of the chief delights of these performances has been hearing my colleagues in the choir step out as soloists in genres far away from our usual baroque choral discipline.  You will hear heroic tenoring, beautiful bel canto, bossa nova, some rootin’, tootin’ duetting, and more.  We had such a hoot putting it together in some rollicking evening sessions at the Bachhaus over the summer, and are delighted to be bringing it back to life one more time!

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What’s the Deal with These Moments of Ahhhh?

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A couple  years ago, in the lead up to Christmas, it seemed almost every day that I would see a posts on Facebook, shared by many friends, that would begin something like this:

Five bearded men with varying levels of hair product (and a stetson!) begin singing in the special acoustics of an empty church, and what follows will blow your mind/bring you to tears/change your life forever!

The churl in me always wanted to comment, “They’re lip-synching (not well), it was clearly recorded in a studio. Also, there is more repertoire out there than Mary, Did you know, and Leonard Cohen’s masterwork, Hallelujah,” but such protestations were likely only to secure further social isolation.

When our fabulous new Marketing Director, the brilliant Renée James, and I met this summer to brainstorm some new initiatives, she suggested the possibility of offering something lovely on a weekly basis, without any purpose besides perhaps galvanizing community among our Facebook followers, something that would be a nice release, a kind of, as she put it, “Moment of Ahhhh.”  I’m all for this – I will often share such videos on my own Facebook page (they garner significantly fewer likes than the bearded and stetsoned gentlemen singing Mary, did you know…), and I thought that maybe the Bach audience might be more receptive to such sharing (and you have – I don’t have the stats on this week’s share, Schütz’s stunning Selig sind die Toten, a precursor to the Brahms Requiem, only a few centuries earlier, but previous weeks have had close to 200 link clicks).

Renée’s idea also resonated on a deeper level for me, for I worry that our media-saturated overstimulation has come at something of a cost to our listening skills.  The idea of pausing for a kind of mindful listening is a very attractive one, and we might get to experience an artist, a composer, or a work of which we were previously unaware.  Additionally, choral and early music groups gather daily in empty (and full) churches (and concert halls) across the world to make stunning, life-changing, mind-blowing music, and it’s entirely possible to be as thrilled by, say, Vox Luminis, as you are by Pentatonix. Ideally, both!  At least, we hope so.

I responded to Renée’s original suggestion with a different Moment of Ahhh for each week this fall, and put together another set for this winter and spring.  Many feature other groups, from other genres, some feature us, especially in the lead-up to our concerts.  My criterion for each of them is this:  is this work worth dropping whatever you’re doing for a few moments of aural beauty? Some of our followers have suggested their own Moments of Ahhh, which is a great idea (my choices will take us through May – I’m keeping a list of other suggestions to share over the summer).  You can also feel free to comment here or on the Facebook page with your own suggestions.  We live in trying times, I contend that it’s most important to take care of our own souls with a daily infusion of beauty – it can be art, poetry, literature, and, of course, music.  We’re happy to chip in, once a week, with our Moments of Ahhhh.  Do let us know if they help!

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Bach at Noon Wrap-Up

Members of The Choir warm up on Central Moravian Church's Kleiner Saal

Members of The Choir warm up in Central Moravian Church’s Kleiner Saal

In my preview of this afternoon’s Bach at Noon, I mentioned being glad that we could experience some Christmas music that is short on the bombast that can sometimes overwhelm the season’s offerings (don’t get me wrong, I love it when there’s the opportunity to sing lustily).  Just as there are many textures and emotions in the Christmas narrative, our music should reflect that panoply of affects, and one of them, intimate joy, is one of my favorites.  I’m gratified that it seemed we delivered much of that, this afternoon.

The program began with Max Drischner’s Partita on Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, which Greg played in alternation with The Choir’s performance of three verses of Hugo Distler’s melancholic but ravishingly beautiful arrangement of the same tune.  In design, we seemed to morph from devout whimsy to something even deeper.  Distler’s harmonies and decorative part-writing seem to harken back to earlier music, and offer a portrait of multiple complexities, from the evanescent beauty of a birth that would ultimately result in the cross, to Distler’s own ambivalence about reconciling his faith with the increasingly hostile atmosphere of wartime Germany.  If this all sounds like a prescription for a downer, I can assure you, it was not.  These complexities contribute to the work’s ultimate humanity, and something as simple as a chorale arrangement can be a window to a wealth of emotions.  Also, Greg’s playing (offered on our Brunzema continuo instrument) was quite lovely.  Next, we offered Johann Walter’s Joseph, lieber Joseph, mein, without a pause between pieces, a work that bridged into a later work on the program, Brahms’ Sacred Lullaby.  Before that, however, Greg, Loretta O’Sullivan, our cellist, and Tricia van Oers, our recorder virtuoso extraordinare, offered a charming Pastorale from Nicholas Chédeville (who had tried to sell has own music as Antonio Vivaldi’s).  It’s a pity there’s all the intrigue – Chédeville’s music stands strongly on its own!  In any case, the Pastorale took us from  early 17th century Germany to a Frenchman’s notion of Italy (after hearing two 20th century German arrangements of a 16th century German chorale), to the Late Romantic Era Germany. Brahms’ Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby) begins with the melody of Joseph, lieber, in the cello  and then expands on its themes in a lullaby intended as a wedding gift to expectant parents and friends.  Barbara Hollinshead, Loretta, and Greg (now at the piano) offered this aching beautiful selection, another piece rife with emotional and theological complexity.  We don’t often hear this kind of music in the Valley, and I’m so glad we could share it with our Bach at Noon audience.

Then followed Bach’s shimmering Cantata No. 96, with Tricia dancing merrily away on the recorder part.  There were wonderful contributions from Christòpheren Nomura (whom we were delighted to welcome back to Bethlehem after a long absence), Charles Blandy, Barbara, and Katherine Kaiser, a member of the choir (with a PhD in musicology), who sounded fabulous.  Though it was cold and somewhat dreary outside, there was plenty of warmth (musical and otherwise) inside, and it was a distinct pleasure to perform this music for a near-capacity audience!

Greg also mentioned that it was our 85th Bach at Noon, a milestone for which we are simultaneously grateful and proud. Next month, something vastly different and full of much musical intrigue and hilarity, Warren Martin’s The True Story of Cinderella, a work that had them in stitches at one of our Allentown Bach at Noon performances from this past summer.  We also sang it at the Hermann Wiemer Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region, though I suspect that the copious sampling of Wiemer’s fine wines on the part of the audience may have contributed to their delight in the piece.  In any case, it promises to be a lot of fun, and a perfect selection for the day upon which it serendipitously falls, St. Valentine’s Day!

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Bach at Noon, January 10th: The Shimmering Morgenstern

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The first Bach choral prelude I learned was the stately Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn, BWV 601, from the Orgelbüchlein.  Bach treats the cantus firmus quite lyrically, over gentle sixteenth note arpeggiations, with a recurring motive in the pedal, which the editor of the edition I played from the time, Albert Riemenschneider, referred to as the “joy motive.”  I had no idea what he might mean, but I was later able to pay Reimenschneider respects when The Choir participated in his greatest legacy, ten years ago:  The Baldwin-Wallace Bach Festival! (Musicologists of Riemenschneider’s vintage often ascribed affekts, or emotions, to particular musical gestures, and the one in this prelude was deemed joyful.)  In any case, the tune is in my early musical DNA, and it’s now a delight to be singing a cantata based on the same chorale, BWV 96.

Though we’ll be giving it the Epiphany treatment, the cantata was actually composed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, and had its premiere in October of 1724, in Leipzig.  The reason for taking it slightly out of liturgical time:  its mention of the Morgenstern, or Morning Star.  The text is adapted from Elizabeth Kreuziger, who was married to one of Luther’s most devoted pupils, and who became friends with Katharina von Bora, that is, Mrs. Martin Luther.  Kreuziger is often referred to as the First Poetess of the Lutheran Church.

The last two lines of the first verse of her evocative text paint a beautiful picture:

His gaze extends far and wide
and is more brilliant than other stars.

Bach always seems to write shimmering music when stars are in the libretto (think of the virtuosic violin obbligato in his Epiphany cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgernstern), and, in the case of this cantata, much of the radiance comes from the soprano recorder, which will be played by our dear friend and charismatic recorder virtuoso, Tricia van Oers.   There are lengthy instrumental ritornellos (preludes, interludes, and postludes), which will give her ample opportunity to shine.  Bach gives the chorale melody to the altos, with lots of imitative counterpoint from the other three voice parts.  I heard my colleagues in a small ensemble sing this at Bach at 4 in this past May’s festival, and it’s a delight to join most of them for a encore at Bach at Noon.

The rest of the cantata also features evocative moments, including a lyrical and jaunty tenor aria, which will showcase the beautiful tenor of Charles Blandy.  Chris Nomura, excellent friend of The Choir (whom we haven’t seen for a while, since he was singing a lead role in George Takei’s Allegiance on Broadway!), will sing a vivid aria that includes scoring for strings and oboes, in which Bach creates a sound picture of trudging footprints (“soon to the left, soon to the right”) with which the erring soul leans.  A soprano from The Choir, Katherine Kaiser (last heard in a solo role as one of the dreadful stepsisters in Cinderella, at the Allentown Bach at Noon – a role she’ll reprise next month at Bach at Noon in Bethlehem!), and longtime friend of The Choir, alto Barbara Hollinshead, will round out the quartet of soloists.

The program will also include some lovely German music for the Nativity, including chorale variations on Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming, for organ, by Max Drischner, and Hugo Distler’s stunner of an arrangement of the same tune.  Also, we’ll hear Walther’s Joseph, lieber, Joseph, Mein, and Brahms’ Geistliches Weigenlied, two devout selections to help us bid a fond adieu to the Christmas season. I’m particularly pleased that we’ll have the opportunity to hear music that’s a little lighter on the Christmas bombast – music that evokes and charms, something it seems is on shorter order each passing year.  Steve Siegel of the Morning Call has a nice preview up on their website.   Remember that the doors will open at 11:30, on Tuesday, and you’ll want to arrive soon thereafter to secure a good seat!

 

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Christmas Gift Ideas from the Bach Choir and Friends

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For Christmas last year, I asked my family and friends for gift cards to the Metropolitan Opera (since I automatically attend all of the Bach Choir’s concerts as a performer), and, as a result, we got to see wonderful performances of The Marriage of Figaro and Otello. We were extremely grateful for the experiences.  Any good gift discussion from the vast repository of Bach Choir swag begins with concert performances.  Visit the Season page of our website to ponder some of our offerings, but take special note of the upcoming Family and Spring Concerts – and bring the kids/grandchildren/neighbors’ kids/etc.  Both of these concerts will child friendly – the Family Concert will be especially captivating this year.  Likewise, the Spring Concert will feature our partners in the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem. Experiences are wonderful gifts that result in aesthetic and spiritual stimulation, as well as treasured memories.

If you visit The Choir’s online Shop, you’ll see there’s no end to the Christmas-appropriate merchandise, including four volumes of Christmas in Bethlehem, with all manor of Christmas caroling, treasured pieces, and some deep cuts, recorded expertly by some of the best engineers in the business.  There’s also The Choir’s wonderful recording of the Christmas Oratorio from about 16 years ago.  It wears its age extremely well, as does the earlier Christmas in Leipzig recording (which I wore out on cassette as an 8th grader).  On the latter, The Choir sounds a bit plumper, but still with our trademarked agility and clarity, with stunning singing by a quartet of soloists including Janice Taylor, David Gordon, Dan Lichti, and Sylvia McNair (!).

If you’re looking for a stocking-stuffer for the grandkids/kids, and you’ve already bought them tickets to the Family Concert (seriously, bring the kids to this concert – Doug Roysdon and the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre, along with Tricia van Oers on recorder, are going to make for a supremely charming and whimsical collaboration), you might consider A Child’s Christmas in Bethlehem, which is full of lovely poetry (read by both children and adults), children’s voices (Bel Canto, before our recent partnership), and all kinds of magical Christmas music.

Casting a slightly wider net, there’s Friend-of-The-Choir and NY Times Bestselling Author Lauren Belfer’s novel After the Fire, about which you may read here, in a guest blog post by the author, herself.  I have a copy, and it’s been on my reading list for a while – this has been an especially busy fall! I intend to post about it once I’ve read it, but if you’ve beat me there, feel free to comment.

Also, another dear friend of The Choir, our beloved countertenor soloist, Daniel Taylor, has been working on a few recording projects for Sony with his new Trinity Choir, an assemblage of frightening talent from the highest echelons of choral performance.  The two discs they’ve released, thus far, have both been of Christmas music.  Four Thousand Winter was released last year, and the follow-up disc is entitled Tree of Life.  Both discs are absolutely stunning, and have at their centers large works of renaissance polyphony (Tallis’ Videte Miraculum in the former, and Jean Mouton’s especially-glorious Nesciens Mater, in the latter).  Filling out the programs on both discs are smaller works, both ancient and modern, with the unifying link of unusual spiritual and intellectual depth.  The engineering and sonics are fabulous (both were recorded in churches with exceptional acoustics in London), and the performances are tears-in-your-eyes revelatory.  Particular favorite tracks are Matthew Martin’s Adam Lay Ybounden, John Joubert’s There is No Rose (unknown to me before the recording, now a reliable moment of transcendence), and all of Arvo Pärt’s Seiben Magnificat-Antiphonen.  The Antiphons are particularly evocative, and Daniel’s group is my new reference recording, not least in part because of the inextricable and achingly complementary relationship between performers and acoustics in these works.  No digital or electronic tinkering can outshine a fantastic choir in a fantastic room.  If you need an escape from all of the holiday clatter, you could hardly do better than these recordings, which are available from Amazon and on iTunes.

With this post, I’ll be signing off until the New Year, so a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to our friends who visit the blog. 2017 holds a lot of wonderful music in store for the Bach Choir family, and I’m looking forward to discussing it with you in the coming months!  Finally, if you can, listen to The Choir’s broadcast of our 2016 Christmas Concerts, which will be on WWFM on Christmas Eve at 8 pm (I’ll be in the trenches at church, but if you’re looking for a healthy dose of Christmas magic and aren’t otherwise engaged, you can happily relive the spellbinding pleasure of the concert)!

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2016 Christmas Concerts Wrap-Up

At the Allentown Concert, photo by Linda Ruhf

At the Allentown Concert, photo by Linda Ruhf

For some reason, emotions were running high at the end of our performance in Bethlehem, something I, myself, experienced.  I can’t speak to reasons why others were so obviously moved by the experience, but I can surely say what I found so powerful, and I realized it at dinner, this evening.  The restaurant we were patronizing was playing a sort of pop-ish holiday medley that included a quasi-Latin take on the song, “Silver Bells.”  There was synthesized brass and timpani, and it’s the sort of thing that usually demolishes my appetite, and after a few grinchly remarks, my wife encouraged me to cool my jets.  Even so,  I couldn’t help but think of the contrast to what we experienced at the conclusions of Saturday’s and Sunday’s concerts:  “Silent Night,” sung in four part harmony by the audience and Choir, alike, two verses in German bookending a verse in English, with Gerre Hancock’s ravishing descant on the last verse.  Simplicity, itself, but also deeply, deeply, authentic, deeply organic, without affectation, voices raised in community.  No amplification, no synthesized percussion, no nonsense.  In our over-auto-tuned, post-truth culture of so much smoke and so many mirrors, it is refreshing to experience something so utterly powerful for its simplicity.  And that was just the ending.

The rest of the concerts seemed, to my ears, to celebrate the use of craft and skill to advance a familiar narrative in ways that seemed impossibly fresh and beguiling.  If you asked me what my favorite moment of the concerts was, I’d have to demure.  Each succeeding aria, recitative, and chorus seemed to build on the previous, and to favor one over another seems needlessly exclusive.  Thus, my favorite moment seemed to stretch well over two hours.

How about some highlights instead?  Hearing RJ Kelly and Tony Cecere play the punishingly high horn obbligatos in the opening and closing choruses of the fourth cantata of the Christmas Oratorio with such panache, style, and bravery was utterly thrilling.  Ben Butterfield, our excellent tenor soloist, began the recitatives with a sense of compelling storytelling, in a manner that invited listeners to lean forward and pay special heed to what was unfolding.  He also acquitted himself fearlessly in his arias, and with some particularly high tessitura recitative singing. This cantata was composed as part of the larger whole oratorio to commemorate the circumcision and naming of Jesus, and our wonderful bass soloist, David Newman, captured the multifaceted nature of Picander’s libretto in his first recitative, in which he repeats the name of Jesus six times.  David’s sense of drama and devotion are powerful – his voice commands both attention and admiration (he’s also a deeply-inspiring and hilarious pedagogue – follow this link to one of his masterpieces in the country and western style explaining a particular chord usage in music theory).  Then followed the Oratorio’s famous “Echo Aria,” which showcased our radiant soprano soloist, Ellen McAteer, her more than capable “echoer,” Bach Choir member Shannon Aloise, and oboist extraordinaire, Mary Watt.  There are perhaps more eloquent ways to put this, but their volleying of the fanfare figurations in this charming aria simply gave me the feels.  As frequently is the case, we are often surprised at the talent of members of the Choir who are from time to time given solo opportunities.  I knew that Shannon was an excellent singer, but the way she complimented Ellen’s color and delivery was extremely impressive.  Mary’s playing was, as always, fantastic.  I have been long on the record in admiration of Ellen’s singing.  A danger of the more recent style of baroque soprano singing is a sort of wan, skeletal sound in the lower register, for which we will make excuses, because it usually is an indication of a sort of chant du rossignol upper register: extremely agreeable in its sweet and flutey sound.  With Ellen, no compromise is necessary.  Her voice is powerful, colorful, and full of shimmery overtones from her lowest to highest notes, and her singing here was immensely rewarding.  We were also granted the opportunity to hear Laura Atkinson, our wonderful alto soloist, share her plush, enveloping sound in some beautiful recitativo accompagnato.  In a way, her assignments in these concerts left us all feeling a little cheated (there were no alto arias in these cantatas from the Oratorio).  It’s been since Catherine Robbin, Marietta Simpson, and, dare I say, Janice Taylor (three great titans from the past) were in town that we’ve heard such rich-toned and lavish mezzo sopranoing in these parts.

There was some stunning instrumental soloing, as well.  Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa on oboes d’amore, joined by Chuck Holdeman on bassoon, and Charlotte Mattax-Moersch,  on continuo organ, created a sonority that honored Bach’s evocation of the instruments of the Middle East in two arias, and Liz Field’s and Claire Bright’s dueling violins in an aria with Ben were riveting (Not least of which because Liz’s music seemed to become unbound and fell to the floor during a page turn, after which Becky Brown, one of our great violinists, bravely dodged Liz’s furious bowing to try to reassemble it of her.  This led to a quick rerecording of the B-seciont of the piece for radio broadcast, after which Greg Funfgeld turned to the audience and deadpanned, “We will never speak of this again,” after there was good-natured applause on the part of our gracious audience).  There was also some fantastic trumpeting from Larry Wright and his colleagues.  Larry, in particular, offered some fierce playing on the fiendishly difficult last movement.  Bach sets a festive, major-key version of the Passion Chorale to accompaniment that would give the Second Brandenburg Concerto a run for its money in the challenging-for-trumpet category.  Larry pulled it all off, and then some.  Likewise, the orchestra, as a whole, sounded marvelous from start to finish.  The demands on the instrumentalists are quite varied – from sensitive pastorale to fleet “hoedown” (in the words of our conductor) – and their playing was an inspired and solid undergirding for the entire proceeding.  Kudos, too, to our fearless leader, who managed the whole thing with remarkable aplomb, infectious energy, and good humor.

I usually refrain from speaking about the Choir in these wrap-ups, because it’s perhaps a little gauche to comment on the facets of a performance in which I participated directly.   I will say that the tenors really seemed to have had their V8 before both concerts, and things on the choral front seemed to go really well.  If you were at either concert, or missed it and would like to hear, WWFM recorded the Sunday afternoon performance for broadcast on Christmas Eve, at 8 pm. If you’re available, I highly recommend a listen – these really were spectacular concerts!

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