If there’s any community in the United States that can claim the vast legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, it’s in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with its rustic Moravian stone architecture and vestiges of decades as a rust belt mainstay, sits about two hours outside of New York. Comparable in size to Cleveland, it’s home to one of this country’s most popular annual Bach festivals. Last night in the comfortably lit confines of the city’s First Presbyterian Church, its good burghers had come out to hear the Bach Choir and Festival Orchestra of Bethlehem perform the first three parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for the first time in ten years.
An unselfconscious joy and optimism radiated from the stage to the crowd: neither ensemble nor audience were the least bit blase. Nor should they have been. The Christmas Oratorio doesn’t have the stormy gusts and restless intensity of, say, Bach’s St. John Passion; this late-career epic is a sleekly detailed, confidently interwoven celebration of the triumph of the human spirit, Teutonic 18th century style. That’s exactly how this group delivered it, letting their enthusiasm shine through its endless series of interchanges without getting carried away. It was calm excitement, an eye-opening time capsule, not just to the the era when this music was created, but to a less virtual time in American history when performances like these were just as much about the fabric of a region as about spectacle. “Try to imagine being in Leipzig in 1734 and hearing this music for the very first time,” conductor Greg Funfgeld entreated the sold-out house, although he might just as well have been talking about 1901, when an earlier version of this same group – America’s oldest Bach choir – performed this suite in its entirety for the first time.
Soloists were strong and distinctly individual. Soprano Ellen McAteer got the most out of her brief time in the spotlight with a calmly steely precision. Countertenor Daniel Taylor got the most of anyone and made his challenging flights up into the clouds look easy. Tenor Isaiah Bell confidently channeled the music’s optimism, as did bass-baritone David Newman, whose unassuming smile and irrepressible good cheer were contagious.
The orchestra displayed a calm cohesion amid the swirl, bringing Bach’s breathtakingly inventive voicings and textures into crystalline focus: the old organist just couldn’t resist pairing, say, cello and bassoon for a spot-on facsimile of a krummhorn organ stop. Ingenious echo effects, fusillades of call-and-response pinballing through the choir, elegant pairings of voices and solo instruments, pensively waltzing interludes and a couple of mighty swells just short of bursting with contentment combined to evoke shepherds and angels and an anxious mother-to-be all awaiting one expectant moment, the mystical as vividly personal. To reinforce that, after the Bach was finally done, there was a singalong of three carols – in German, for authenticity’s sake, many of the concertgoers joining in. For New Yorkers and other residents in the northeast who didn’t have the good fortune to catch a ride out for this performance, the concert was recorded and will be broadcast in its entirety on WWFM on Christmas day at 8 PM.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem’s next concert is February 28 at 3 PM as part of a festival of youth choirs at the arts center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, They’re also performing the St. John Passion on March 20 at 4 PM at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem at 2344 Center St.
“This is very intense music in general,” violinist Monica Huggett remarked before the concluding piece on a whirlwind program last night by the newly formed Salon/Sanctuary Chamber Orchestra in the quaintly historic, sonically indulgent Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium in Yorkville. Huggett wasn’t kidding. She’d been thinking out loud about how much angrier and stormier J.S. Bach’s earlier works were, by comparison to his later repertoire. “He expressed himself in very direct ways. Let’s hear it for the young Bach!”
Then she led the spirited, poised ensemble – also comprising violinists Karen Dekker and Dongmyun Ahn, violist Dan McCarthy, cellist James Waldo, bassist Dara Bloom and harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire – through the terse, angst-infused exchanges of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. It didn’t have quite the level of intricacy and interplay of some of the other, later material on the evening’s all-Bach program, but it gave the ensemble a launching pad for vivid, fleetingly incisive exchanges replete with unexpected metrical shifts and what Huggett aptly termed “blue notes.”
Waldo got the night off to a strong start with a nuanced, richly ambered take of the Suite for Solo Cello in G Major, BWV 1007. This is the most famous one: you probably know it from a million movies, commercials and NPR promos. Playing from memory, eyes closed, Waldo let the music breathe while he stayed true to the composer’s steady, circling pace.
Bach’s Sonata for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin in A Major, BWV 1015, as Brookshire’s insightful progarm notes explained, probably dated from the composer’s Leipzig years, when he was as much an impresario as composer, feeling his big family booking shows all over town. In the hands of the ensemble, this piece for awhile brought to mind images of a comfortable one-percenter salon milieu, but quickly took a turn in a much darker direction as the musicians shadowed each other, following a long, minutely jeweled sequence of tradeoffs through to its somewhat calmer, stately conclusion.
The centerpiece of the show was Brookshire’s breathtaking performance of the lightning volleys of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903. It’s rare enough to hear on harpsichord rather than piano or church organ, rarer still to hear the instrument whir, and resonate, and sing as Brookshire made it do. There’s a diabolical character to a lot of it, and although Brookshire barely broke a smile, it was obvious that he was savoring its searing cascades, ripples and charges up and down the keys. One thing the program notes didn’t mention was how fond a nod this piece gives to the darkest side of Dietrich Buxtehude, Bach’s pioneering mentor and main influence. The performance was enough to make what seemed like at least half of the sold-out crowd make their way to the front of the hall at intermission to get a close look at the harpsichord, as Brookshire calmly peered inside and made a few adjustments in the wake of the storm he’d just unleashed from it.
Salon/Sanctuary Concerts have earned themselves a substantial following for their adventurous programming; their performances last year with soprano and impresario Jessica Gould, showcasing haunting Italian Jewish music by Salamone Rossi juxtaposed with works by his Christian contemporaries, were rich, and haunting, and got them a lot of press. Their next concert is December 10 at 8 PM with Hopkinson Smith playing moody lute music from Tudor England by John Dowland, William Byrd and the lesser-known John Johnson and Anthony Holborne, also at Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium; general admission is $35/$25 stud/srs.
Cellist Inbal Segev played a mesmerizingly intuitive, emotionally electrifying selection of Bach cello suites from her forthcoming album at Lincoln Center last night. During an extensive and enlightening Q&A with an intimate penthouse crowd, she came across as both deeply reflective and also something of a restless soul – a runner during her conservatory years, she’s clearly still defining her own path. When she picked up her bow, she played with a penetrating yet luminous tone reflective of the centuries since her cello was manufactured in Italy in 1673. It was the antithesis of a cookie-cutter performance: Segev varied her dynamics and attack with sometimes minute, sometimes striking variation depending on emotional content, revealing the music as songs without words.
Excerpts from Nick Davis‘ forthcoming documentary film about Segev, screened before the concert, revealed that she’d been scheduled to complete the album prior to this year (the music is still in the editing stage). But during the initial recording, she collapsed. In trying to embrace a more traditional baroque approach to the music, one that goes against the grain of her own intuition as an artist, she ended up abandoning the project. She told the crowd that her only choice was to regroup and reapproach the album – the Bach suites being sort of a rite of passage that most A-list cellists record sooner or later – with her own integrity front and center. That last night’s concert sounded perfectly suitable for release on cd validates that she picked the right moment to listen to her inner voice.
During the Q&A, three of the cellist’s remarks were especially telling. First, she admitted to being more comfortable in the concert hall than in the studio: “Onstage, it’s everything we’re trained to do: you don’t have time to think,” Segev explained. Which begs the question of why more artists, in the classical world and elsewhere, don’t release more live recordings. Another interesting remark spoke volumes. In response to an audience member inquiring about the degree to which Segev employs the traditional metronomic rhythm for playing Bach, the cellist replied that she didn’t. “A metronome can kill a piece easily,” she cautioned. Which deeply informs how Segev approaches Bach: while she didn’t rubato the music or imbue it with tropes from Romanticism or otherwise, her interpretations were irrefutably individualistic.
She equated the stark sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C Minor to Webern, explaining how elusive its tonal center is and then illustrating it with a spare, exploratory quality enhanced by tuning her A string down to a G for extra overtones, as was popular in Bach’s era. By contrast, much of the Suite No. 2 in D Minor was considerably more straightforward. She ended the show by finding the inner danse macabre in the gigue from the Suite No. 5. If the new album is anything like this concert, it’s amazing.
Wednesday night the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola rescued an otherwise gloomy and dismal evening with warmth and epic grandeur at their sonically superb home base, via an animated performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 and then Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. Music Director K. Scott Warren had a jaunty confidence on the podium, conducting the Haydn through its many dynamic shifts between instrumental voices, with lively, conversational counterpoint. From its precise cantabile opening, to a surprising and welcome gravitas in the second movement, the swaying dance of the third and a long series of clever, practically conspiratorial exchanges as it wound out, Warren and the ensemble spotlighted all the most entertaining moments. It’s not a heavy piece of music – it made for a well-received contrast with the storm gusting outside.
Like his Requiem, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor is unfinished. It may or may not have been performed in his lifetime. It has far more to do with operatic flair than gothic gravitas: watching the choir pulsing through its waves and cadenzas, it was easy to imagine a group from Mozart’s day reveling in how much fun church had become with this composer writing the score! Was this a vehicle for the talented choirgirl who would become his wife? Quite possibly. And she had to be talented because the lead soprano role is brutally challenging, but Martha Guth embraced the hair-raising demands of its roller-coaster dips and swells and meticulous ornamentation and left the audience stunned.
Soprano Marguerite Krull also brought a sparkling clarity to her parts, often paired off with New York Polyphony‘s Stephen Caldicott Wilson and his far more stern, measured tenor (and impressive low range as well). Wilson’s choirmate Christopher Dylan Herbert was required to do less, but added an extra layer of heft in the final sections. Because Mozart never finished the mass, Warren had to choose from many versions fleshed out by others, over the centuries; settling on a 20th century version by Mozart’s fellow Austrian Helmut Eder was respectful of the original in limiting its scope to the parts of the score finished by the composer himself. Joy, and passion, and lustrous timbres from the top to the bottom of what the human voice is capable of delivering, abounded throughout the group’s dynamic and rousing interpretation. The next concert here is a fascinating program of original arrangements by organist David Enlow on Nov 2 at 3 PM; the Choir and Orchestra return on Nov 30 at 3 with a celebration of Advent.
Pioneering Renaissance choir Stile Antico return to New York this coming Saturday, April 21 for an 8 PM concert put on by the Miller Theatre folks at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 W 46th St. As of this writing, tix are still available via the Miller Theatre box office (Broadway and 116th St., and online). In case you might wonder how a choir singing five-hundred-year-old motets could possibly be pioneering, you haven’t heard Stile Antico. The self-directed twelve-voice group (they perform without a conductor, in the style of a string quartet) has made a career out of resurrecting obscure and underrated choral works from the 17th century and before then; their concerts are exhilarating. With their blend of male and female voices, they have a gyroscopic sonic balance, an absolutely necessity considering the dizzying and occasionally herculean demands of the music they sing. On their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi), they’re joined on several tracks by noted early music viol ensemble Fretwork.
Thematically, it’s a bit of a change from the towering (and sometimes harrowing) compositions they’ve mined during the early part of their career (although their Advent and Christmas-themed album Puer Natus Est foreshadowed this turn in a somewhat sunnier direction). The works here tend to be shorter and often less ornate – which can mean quieter, and on a couple of occasions, a showcase for individual group voices as the harmonies literally make their rounds. In the case where the choir isn’t going full steam, the sonics are sometimes fleshed out by gentle yet stately string arrangements, along with a small handful of instrumental preludes. The beauty of the performance transcends any specific religious association (although it’s nice to be able to understand the words without having to dig out that old Latin dictionary). A lineup of well-rembered composers is represented – Thomas Tallis, John Dowland and William Byrd, among others – but as usual, the gems here are the rarest ones. The modernity and outright, awestruck dissonances in John Amner’s A Stranger Here are literally centuries ahead of their time; Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen works a potently quiet, apprehensive counterpoint that threatens to break out into fullscale angst but never does. And Giovanni Croce’s From Profound Centre of My Heart would make a great pop anthem. Throughout the album, the low/high contrasts are characteristically vivid when they’re not so seamless that it seems like one single polyphonic voice is creating these otherworldly sonics, aided by the rich natural reverb of the church where they were recorded. Historically, much of this repertoire has been neglected in favor of better-known works from the church music canon; this is a richly enjoyable and valuable endeavor from two rightfully acclaimed ensembles.
Classical music fans in New York looking something more interesting than the same old standards have numerous options. Among the best of these is the New York Scandia Symphony, who dedicate themselves to reviving interest in lesser-known Nordic composers as well as premiering new works by emerging composers from the upper reaches of that hemisphere. Last night at Victor Borge Hall in Murray Hill, the highlight of the night, performed by a twelve-piece chamber version of the orchestra, was the American permiere of contemporary Danish composer Anders Koppel’s Symphonie Concertante. A triptych, it’s a characteristically enigmatic and absolutely fascinating work, something to get lost in if not for the endless tempo and stylistic shifts. Conductor Dorrit Matson, a Dane herself, led the ensemble seamlessly through a wary, pulsing first movement that evoked Astor Piazzolla’s later work before engaging Steven Hartman’s clarinet and Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon in a long round of animatedly crescendoing rhythmic hijinks over the swells of the strings and eventually a labyrinth of polyrhythms. And yet, the jousting stopped abruptly during the early part of the second, Largo movement and turned to apprehension, reaching near-horror proportions via the chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque string motif around which the final Allegro appassionato movement was centered. A celebrity in his native land ever since his days in popular rock band Savage Rose, Koppel deserves to be much better known here.
Another highlight of the program was Symphony violist Frank Foerster’s Suite of Scandinavian Folk Tunes for string ensemble. Foerster is a very eclectic player and has a great wit – another suite of his, Summer in Fort Tryon Park, is a quintessentially New York tableau, packed with irresistible on-location references. This piece is more serious, a rugged hardanger fiddle-style sea motif linking a series of portraits of several of the Nordic nations: by this account, the Norwegians and Swedes are a serious bunch given to vivid dramatics, while the Finns and Icelandics are party animals. Opening the concert, Matson and the group took Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Haydn-esque Violin Concerto and tackled its rather rugged, stern underpinnings with a muscular sway beneath violinist Mayuki Fukuhara’s spun-silk swirls; a bit later, Hartman was featured in a velvety version of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, Op. 11 of Bernhardt Henrik Crusell, a Swedish contemporary of Mozart. They closed with enjoyably jaunty yet precise takes on the Prelude and Rigaudon from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Concerts like this only add intrigue to the question: what have else we not yet heard from this particular part of the world that deserves to be known equally well over here – and when is this orchestra going to play it?
This time of year the concerts in churches all over town pick up steam: it’s a holdover from the days when Advent was a way of keeping the peasants out of trouble until the final Saturnalia-style blowout at the end of the year. Sometimes the result is festive overkill. Last night at St. Thomas Church, Joseph Ripka of Calvary Church in historic Stonington, Connecticut played a concert that was just the opposite, a welcome antidote to all that pomp. Airing out the church’s smaller, more Northern European-toned gallery organ, his program featured works by baroque and pre-baroque composers especially suited to that instrument.
He began with a carefully paced, somewhat wary take of Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasy, which actually owes its brooding quality to an artful sequence of minor chords rather than to much of any sort of chromatics. Sweelinck’s contemporary, German composer Johann Steffens’ Veni Redemptor Gentium maintained the soberly Teutonic ambience, which brightened considerably with Abraham van der Kerckhoven’s memorable, strikingly more modern-toned Fantasie in D Minor. Buxtehude’s Mit fried und freud ich fahr dahm (BuxWV 76) is a typical period piece, a simple theme and variations that kept the stately expanse of counterpoint going: it only remotely echoes the composer’s intense, chromatically-fueled, paradigm-shifting passacaglias and fugues. Ripka finally pulled out all the stops for a rousing, majestic take of Bach’s Fugue on Meine Seele erhebt den Herren. What a delightful and counterintuitive way to close out the year at this long-running, perennially high-quality series of recitals, which resumes this coming January 15.
Acclaimed German early music group joins forces with Canadian cellist for a romp through an impressively diverse selection of Vivaldi works for cello and string ensemble: the operative question here is, why cover the same ground that so many other artists have over the centuries? Maybe because it’s so much fun. This vividly enjoyable assemblage of cello concertos by Vivaldi and his contemporary Antonio Caldera, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras with the Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Georg Kallweit, is recently out on Harmonia Mundi. Some of these pieces are parts of other suites: there’s a selection from L’Estro Armonico, and even a vignette from the Four Seasons. The production is lush and rich, considerably more so than typically is the case with recordings of music from Vivaldi’s era. Queyras plays with the clear, direct, somewhat more trebly cantabile tone common to 300-year-old instruments over arrangements still striking in their buoyancy. That this music resonates as much as it does to modern ears – bracing, unexpected chord changes and dynamic shifts within familiar period architecture – testifies to how far ahead of its time it was. The album is best enjoyed as a whole: it really sets a mood (uploading the whole thing as a playlist will help facilitate this). But there are many individual treats here that leap out at the listener.
The theme from the second movement of the Sinfonia in C has been used (and ripped off) for film music for decades, while the blustery Concerto in G Minor gives Queyras a chance to dig for gravitas through the rapidfire staccato passages. After opening with Raphael Alpermann’s wary, dark harpsichord and strings, the second movement of the Concerto in F lets Queyras revel in its chocolatey beauty. The Concerto for Cello and Bassoon in E Minor has the stark counterpoint between the cello and Christian Beuse’s bassoon making a mighty contrast with practically frantic strings. And the Concerto No. 11 in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) plays up its subtle yet striking echo effects. The Caldera pieces include the richly brooding Sinfonia No.12 in A minor, a Christ on the Cross tableau; a dressed-up country waltz, and the wary, sometimes rapt, fugal Sinfonia No.6 in G minor. Though most of the 30 individual tracks here clock in at less than three minutes, the effect is seamless. It’s a triumph for everyone concerned, including the listener.
Classical guitarist Jon Mendle’s new album L’Infidele is one of the most singularly enjoyable and interesting releases to come over the transom here this year. Playing solo on 11-string archguitar – a relatively recent invention devised to enable guitarists to play Renaissance lute repertoire – Mendle resurrects two obscure eighteenth-century compositions and gives a third a welcome reinterpretation. He plays with stately precision and fluidity – while the occasional torrents of notes can be hypnotic, the incisive melodies here are strong and memorable, transcending the centuries between composition and performance here. In particular, the first two pieces have a striking plaintiveness, and Mendle embraces it vividly.
The first composition is German baroque lutenist Adam Falckenhagen’s Sonata IV, Op. 1, dating from 1740. The opening largo section is wary and deliberate, enhanced by Mendle’s careful pacing – he doesn’t rubato it, which might not seem like the compliment that it is, but that’s a plus, considering how many players have decided to warp the era’s steady tempos to make them “postmodern” or something like that. Here, the additional low bass notes of the archguitar give the arrangement a piano-like tone. Mendle attacks the second, fugal movement with both smoothness and bite and spins off the rolling ripples of the finale with a deliberateness that stops a step ahead of carefree – this is a dark work.
Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Prussian Sonata V begins on a similar tone, steady yet with a pensive undercurrent. The second, andante movement is essentially a diptych: a wary waltz, and a second one even slower, and yet Mendle finds room for additional dynamics. The fluid, final Allegro Assai movement lets Bach the son go to his dad’s playbook for a blend of catchiness and mathematical logic. The final work here is L’Infidele, a six-part sonata by another German lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, impressive even to current-day ears for its eclecticism. It’s easy to imagine the opening movement as a processional for organ. The second expands the theme as a waltz; the third, Sarabande movement begins slow and hypnotic, then loosens up and loses a little of its gravitas, but not much. Mendle gets to cut loose more on the final three movements: a minor-key waltz that could pass as a Bach miniature; a Musette whose courtly gentility has a hint of the woods, and the best part, the final Paysanne where Mendle gets to take it out as more of a full-fledged dance. The album is out as both hard copy and download from In a Circle Records. Mendle’s next performance is June 4 at 8 PM as a soloist with the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony performing Villa-Lobos’ Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St. in San Francisco
Jayme Stone’s new Room of Wonders is his dance album. Taking a page out of Bach’s French Dance Suite (which he plays here as an energetic, practically punk duo with bowed bass), the virtuoso banjo player and an inspired cast of characters romp through some imaginative new arrangements of traditional dances from around the world. Stone wanted to get jazz-quality players and put them together, but not as soloists, to see what kind of sparks would fly. The main group here consists of Casey Driessen of Abigail Washburn’s quartet on violin, Grant Gordy from Dave Grisman’s band on acoustic guitar and Greg Garrison on bass.
They open with the surprisingly pensive Krasavaska Ruchenitsr, a tricky Bulgarian tune in 7/8 time. Ever wonder what a banjo sounds like playing a horn line? You can find out here. Driessen follows Stone and counterintuitively takes it down rather than hitting a crescendo. Next they tackle a couple of Irish dances, the first darkly bristling, the next one more cheery. Vinicius, a shout-out to Vincius Cantuaria, mines the same kind of suspenseful restraint, with a tasty, buoyant trumpet solo from Kevin Turcotte, drummer Nick Fraser holding down a samba beat when the song isn’t going off into the clouds for an extended, atmospheric break.
Moresca Nuziale, an original wedding theme, keeps the wary, apprehensive vibe going – it’s the last thing most people would want at a wedding, which might make sense since the couple whose wedding the song debuted at broke up six months later. They follow that with Andrea Berget, a stately, wistful Norwegian tune that’s ostensibly a polka, then the Bach, then Stone’s captivating, Tunisian-inspired title track, lit up with some understatedly dramatic cymbal work from Fraser and a jazzy guitar solo. The rest of the album includes a spirited take on Bill Monroe’s Ways of the World, another Bulgarian tune with Driessen contributing cello-like tones on low octave fiddle, and the upbeat Troll King Dom Polska, featuring Vasen’s Olov Johansson on the autoharp-like nyckelharpa. Eclectic? Yeah, you could call it that. Stone will be at le Poisson Rouge on 3/16 at 7 PM opening for the reliably awesome, frequently haunting Las Rubias del Norte.