It’s hard to know where to begin to describe the rewards of the past weekend of music-making, so I think I’ll offer a few reflections in chronological order. If you’re in the area, and didn’t attend this past Friday’s Distinguished Scholar Lecture, I implore you to plan to attend Dr. Christoph Wolff’s brilliant lecture, entitled provocatively, “The Saint John Passion; An Unfinished Work?” Dr. Wolff offers an introduction to the Passion, places it in context with Bach’s other large-scale works, then charts the revisions Bach made to it over a lifetime. The lecture continues with a discussion of theological elements unique to St. John’s gospel, and offers copious musical examples. His erudition and enthusiasm for this music is infectious, and he received a hearty and well-deserved round of applause at the conclusion of his stimulating talk. To continue in the vein of scholarship, I couldn’t help but marvel at Dr. Robin Leaver’s passionate and thought-provoking program notes about this year’s concerts. He penned a remarkable essay on listening to the St. John Passion, and it’s easily one of the best thing’s I’ve ever read on the subject.
Friday afternoon’s performance of Bach’s Psalm 51 was beautifully rendered by the strings and continuo of the Bach Festival Orchestra, and our excellent soloists: Julia Doyle, soprano, and Daniel Taylor, countertenor. This was the first time I’ve heard Bach’s resetting of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, and the work was masterfully sung by Julia and Daniel. It was also an endearing performance – having recently done several movements of the Pergolesi at my church, it was quite fascinating to hear how Bach tinkered with the music, altering the melodies here and there, and adding a bravura viola part (played with verve by our redoubtable viola section). It was also a pleasure to sing the motet, Jesu, Meine Freude, with its labyrinthine construction and fiercely imaginative text-painting.
The bounty continued with a performance of the St. John that will resonate in my memory for quite some time. There were extra acclamations of appreciation from the audience for Charles Daniels, the extraordinary tenor who sang the evangelist role, and they were well-deserved. He brought the challenging recitative vividly to life, with an awe-inspiring range of nuance and expressivity. The other soloists each brought their roles to life with remarkable panache and stunning singing: David Newman’s excellent Pilate, William Sharp’s powerful Jesus, Christopheren Nomura’s thrilling Eilt aria, and his hushed Mein teurer Heiland, Benjamin Butterfield’s lovely Erwäge, the stunning Es ist volbracht of Daniel Taylor, and the overflowing beauty of Julia Dolye’s Zerfliesse. The obbligato playing of several members of the orchestra stood out – I could easily gush on for several paragraphs.
I didn’t attend the Saturday morning concerts, but heard that they were impeccably performed and very well-received. Congratulations to Greg Funfgeld and Tom Goeman for their Great Eighteen recital, and to the period players for the intriguing program on offer at Zimmerman’s Coffee House.
At the heart of the Festival was Saturday afternoon’s Mass in B Minor. We began with wonderful weather which soon turned to grey skies and occasional sprinkles, but all was warm inside, and we turned out what several around me agreed was a solid Mass. The soloists sang beautifully – special kudos to William Sharp, who subbed at the very last minute for Christopheren Nomura, who suddenly fell ill (best wishes for a speedy recovery!). I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in May!
All of this is on offer next weekend as well. Benjamin Butterfield will ably step into the role of evangelist for the St. John, and the same outstanding choral and instrumental fare is on the menu. If you’re on the fence about attending, let me commend each program to you. This is definitely a Festival to remember! The Choir rests today, and then turns its attention to recording the St. John for Monday through Wednesday.
There are some pictures from the Festival on patch.com, and Philip Metzger has a review with some praise (and a few quibbles, alas) up on the Morning Call’s Lehigh Valley Music Blog. Other local press includes previews here and here, in the Express Times and Morning Call, respectively.
Update, 5/9/11 – Steve Siegel has nice review of Saturday morning’s organ recital here.
Update, 5/10/11 – Philip Metzger praises the Zimmerman’s Coffee House concert here.