White Knuckles: Bach @ Noon, April 12

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We have an exciting program coming of up for Bach at Noon, this Tuesday, April 12th.  It will begin with our conductor and assistant conductor playing an arrangement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, arranged for piano by the German romantic (and keyboard sadist), Max Reger.  Audience members who attended last month’s Bach at Noon will have heard the original, and it will be rewarding to contrast that performance with that of our Kapellmeister  and his worthy assistant.  I’m curious to hear how fast they’ll take that nettlesome last movement (one of my favorite performances on recording, that of Musica Antiqua Köln, seems to go several bars to one beat, which is insanely fast, but, somehow they pull it off – look it up on iTunes!).  I’m confident that Greg and Tom will be brisk but won’t sacrifice any musical nuance for the sake of speed.

The program will continue with a work (Bach’s virtuosic motet, Singet dem Herrn),  about which Dr. Robin Leaver, our program annotator, writes:

All the verbal superlatives that have been heaped on this work – and there have been many – cannot do justice to the impact that this marvelous sound makes on performers and hearers alike.

This motet, composed for an indeterminate occasion, has scholars speculating on its provenance – we’re just not sure of the occasion (if any) for which Bach composed one of his greatest contrapuntal masterpieces.  That’s quite alright – just performing or hearing this piece is a grand occasion.

Bach sets verses of Psalms 149 and 150, along with a paraphrase of Psalm 130 for double choir, meaning that there are two four-voice choirs, often with colle parte instruments (instruments that double the vocal lines, note for note), and continuo (organ, ‘celli and basses).  When members of The Choir are polled about their favorite pieces, this one is invariably at or near the top of the list.

The piece begins with the two choirs duetting, followed by an lovely call and response section, the two choirs imitating one another in a strikingly exuberant way.  This beginning section constitutes a sort of prelude, matched to a ridiculously (in the best possible sense of the word) ornate fugue.  The text begins:

Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise His name in dances,

On the word dances” (or reihen), a long melismatic passage begins – many notes are sung to one syllable, creating the aural image of a florid dance.  With each succeeding entrance of the fugue, there is accompaniment from the opposite choir – when all of the voice parts have entered, it’s hard to describe the sheer thrill of the moment.  It requires a lot of vocal and rhythmic dexterity on the part of the choirs – the piece requires a lot of cogs and gears working in perfect synchronicity.  This is one of the reasons this section of the piece is such a white-knuckle thrill for the performers – the fugue moves along at an exciting clip, and the texture is quite thick.  Usually I like to imagine Bach’s faster fugues as dances after seeing the wonderful choreography of Barbara Pearson to the Cum Sancto Spiritu from the B Minor Mass at a Family Concert a few years ago.  Such is the density of this music, that this is next to impossible to do (a large company would be necessary, and there would be lots of acrobatics)!

Following the fireworks of the first two sections, the singers are given a kind of a rest with a more lyrical dialogue that has four singers – in our case, a quartet of excellent soloists from The Choir – singing aria-like extrapolations on a chorale theme that is sung by the two choirs.  This dialogue is slow-moving, and quite beautiful, an invocation for God’s continued protection in the future.

After the relative rest, the choir begins working towards the final fugue, by way of another prelude, this time set to a verse of Psalm 150.  The dialogue comes quickly with rapid calls and responses, and then the two choirs unite into one on a final section to the text:

Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,
Hallelujah!

This section is, again, pure vocal dance with long melismas in an act of text painting: the first is on the word “alles” or everything – underlining the how vast a quantity of souls that would mean.  In a sense, Bach creates a valedictory lap for the two choirs – the music of this last fugue is so infectious in its exuberance that it sort of sings itself (though no vocal complacency is possible – we work hard in this movement!).  The fugue theme is quite bravura, and the piece climaxes with a high b-flat at the end for the sopranos.   Greg often says that this music isn’t for the faint of heart, and that’s quite true – it’s a kind of inexorable musical journey, and one that is a pure delight to sing, provided the singers have put in long hours of rehearsal (ed note: which we have!).  Remember to arrive early – doors will open at 11:30 am – to assure yourself of a good seat!

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