Bach at Noon in Allentown, June 13th: Sweet Eternity

The Bach Choir’s Lehigh Valley reach will continue to extend into our valley neighbors this year, beginning this coming Tuesday, with Bach at Noon in the glorious gothic confines of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Allentown.  These are packed affairs, as you can see from this older photograph from the two summers ago, so you’ll want to arrive early to get a good seat.  We trade the almost-Shaker simplicity of Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem for vaulted arches and elaborate carvings, and Bach’s music takes on a slightly altered character in the beautiful stone sanctuary.  We’re really excited about what we have in store for our Allentown audience (which, it should be said, will include many of our friends from Bethlehem who will make the trek out Broad Street and across the Lehigh River).  Our three-concert Allentown Bach at Noon series will begin with a classic Bach cantata and a charming Vivaldi bassoon concerto.  In July, we’ll celebrate the 500 Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with a performance of Bach’s barn-burning cantata, Ein ‘feste Burg, along with piano prodigy Kristina Moditch offering Bach’s A-Major Concerto with members of the Bach Festival Orchestra.  At the August performance, we’ll hear Ralph Vaughan Williams rhapsodic Shakespeare setting, the Serenade to Music (with a spine-tinglingly evocative text excerpted from the Merchant of Venice) along with our organist, Tom Goeman, offering Bach’s mammoth Toccata and Fugue in F-Major on St. John’s equally mammoth Reuter pipe organ.  We are delighted to offer these concerts for free.  If you’re in the region and are free, what better infusion of joy and beauty could you hope for?

We begin on Tuesday by featuring one of the bedrocks of our orchestra, the bassoonist and composer, Chuck Holdeman.  He’s also one of the longest-serving members of the Bach Festival Orchestra, and his continuo playing always elicits raves (as did his children’s opera, Young Meister Bach, which we performed as our Spring Concert in Bethlehem and Philadelphia, as well as at Festival, a couple years ago).  We’re accustomed to the bassoon as providing the bass line to much of Bach’s music (there are a few arias with bassoon obbligato, which Chuck plays marvelously).  In the Vivaldi, he’ll step up and offer some virtuosic melodies with accompaniment by the strings and continuo.  The middle Largo movement is especially lyrical, and the last movement is especially a toe-tapper, with long, fast lines for the soloist, and Vivaldian zest for the strings.  It’s going to be delightful.

Cantata 78 was composed for the 14th Sunday after Trinity and first performed on September 10, 1724.   The text of this cantata is somewhat dark, charting the depth of sin and shame, wrapping it in the sacrifice of Christ, and finding redemption and peace in “sweet eternity.”  If the text, written in the theological lingua franca of its time, seems severe, Bach balances that severity with sublime music of a stunning variety of textures and moods. Indeed, perhaps the greatest contrast is between the first and second movements:  the first being a massive effort, composed over a ground bass, and the second, a fleet-footed delight of extraordinary whimsy and wit.

A ground bass, or repeated bass pattern was utilized many times in Bach’s compositions, from one of his earliest cantatas, No. 150 (whose last movement, a spirited chaconne was an earlier signifier of the genius of Bach’s cantatas), to the twin movements: the opening chorus of Cantata 12, which was later refashioned into the Crucifixus of the Mass in B-Minor.  Over this repeated bass line in Cantata 78, we hear contrapuntal work from the lower three voices, followed by the work’s main chorale melody, declaimed by the sopranos of the choir. Bach creates a stunning variety in the repeated patterns, sometimes maintaining the harmony over a pedal point (a single note held by the basso continuo instruments for a long time), sometimes with very dance-inflected inner voices.  The text references the devil’s pit, Christ’s bitter death, and ends on a hopeful note (thankfully – it’s all very dark).  The voice in the libretto of this cantata, mostly by an anonymous author, with some verses of the chorale upon which it’s based, is somewhat self-flagellating.

The text of the second movement speaks of our haste with “weak yet eager footsteps,” to our Savior, and Bach, perhaps weary of the darkness and lament can’t help but respond with a duet almost unparalleled in its whimsy.  To my ears, there’s nothing weak about it, and I can more easily imagine the rhythmic raising of beer steins than a devout offering in the middle of a Sunday morning service.  In the record of Bach’s papers, we do have invoices for brandy and wine.  I’m tempted to surmise that old JS might have nipped into some of that for the writing of this movement.  It’s irresistibly joyful.

After an extended tenor recitative, there is some more musical sunshine with a lovely aria that includes an instrumentalization similar to to the Benedictus from the B-Minor: flute and basso continuo.  Though, in this setting, the low strings play pizzicato or plucked.  With the atoning blood of Christ, the singer’s heart is made light and is encouraged and triumphant.

Next, a long bass recitative, reflecting on Christ’s wounds as an atoning sacrifice that lightens the heart of the singer.  The recit is accompanied by strings and is quite dramatic.  It is then followed by vigorous bass aria, with an oboe obbligato.  Bach paints a sound picture of a clamoring conscience, brought still by the love of Christ.  The cantata then concludes with a lovely harmonization of the chorale.

We have an excellent quartet of soloists joining us, including the rising soprano, Julie Bosworth, the plush mezzo, Janna Critz, longtime friend of The Choir, Stephen Ng (recently back from a series of performances in Hong Kong), and another longtime friend, the bass, David Newman, who will decamp a little later this summer to work with our friends at the Carmel Bach Festival in California.  It promises to be a lovely afternoon – as I said, please plan to arrive early to secure a good seat!

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