The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute
The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.
The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.
Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.
The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.
It’s hubristic to even think of staging a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just the amount of space required for orchestra, choir and soloists is daunting. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging pieces of music in the entire classical canon, it’s also one of the most physically taxing. “It didn’t feel like we were onstage as long as we were,” one of the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s cellists exclaimed, flushed and practically winded, after their lavish performance of it yesterday evening.
“Beethoven was insane when he wrote this!” groused one of the bassists. “It’s like the Grosse Fugue.” He was referring to the notoriously thorny coda to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13. But he and the cellist and the rest of the low strings – whose fingers really take a beating in the symphony’s final movement, leaping between registers at breakneck speed – dug in and delivered a performance that was more of a hymn to adrenaline than the ode to joy in the famous Schiller poem from which Beethoven took his inspiration. The rest of the orchestra followed suit. And that’s fine, that’s what music should be about a lot of the time. In context, it was the perfect choice. If you can play this at all, chances are it’ll be good. And it was. The roar of a pretty-much sold-out house afterward affirmed that.
After she’d led the orchestra through a brief fanfare well-known to NPR listeners, conductor Barbara Yahr offered her usual insight. She sees Beethoven’s narrative in the symphony’s four movements as contiguous. The first, a vibrant life somewhat in disarray, awash in ups and downs. The second, a “diabolical dance,” which as she accurately pointed out draws a straight line back to the pizzicato third movement of the Sixth Symphony. The third, a love ballad, and the fourth, a tug of war between orchestra and the low strings, who refuse to accept a new theme again and again until finally, “The one we know from childhood recitals,” as she said with a grin, finally takes centerstage and redeems everything and love wins over all.
Whew. Beethoven influences people who write about him too.
Now here’s an alternate interpretation. Those of us who love Beethoven know how, for all intents and purposes, his Fifth Symphony was really his Fourth, and vice versa, and how the disconnect between when he happened to write a piece and when his publishers put it out occurred all the time. Just like pretty much everyone who writes music, Beethoven had a “song junkyard” full of unfinished ideas in one form or another. It therefore stands to reason that he took the four favorites he had kicking around and strung them together as a swan song. That he was able to tie them together as much as he did, and in the process made it pretty much impossible for any other symphonic composer to follow him, conceptually at least, underscores why the Ninth is such an important piece of music . Even if, say, you find the famous final theme cloying and the Schiller poem it’s based on trippy and unfocused.
So from this point of view, the piece de resistance at this performance was that clever and richly interwoven first movement. The doomy main theme is akin to the theme from the Fifth Symphony, times two. Watching conductor and orchestra weaving through the waves of uneasy bluster juxtaposed with moments of joy, holding nothing back in reserve for what was to follow, was a blustery joy to witness. The second movement came across not as diabolical but heroic and triumphant, precision matched to unrestrained passion. Maybe the composer put the third movement in for the sake of a momentary breather, awash in lustrous high/low harmonies, and the ensemble seemed glad to back off for a bit.
It took a total of three all-ages choirs: the Ars Musica Chorale, directed by Dusty Francis; the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale, led by Nelly Vuksic, and Seraphim, conducted by Robert Long, to deliver the fourth movement’s titanic polyphony, and they did with a precision and robustness to match the orchestra’s herculean efforts onstage. The choral soloists: baritone Peter Stewart. soprano Rachel Rosales, mezzo-soprano Jan Wilson and tenor John Tiranno, all punched in strongly when their moments came.
Not having seen this performed since childhood (and hating it at the time, and wishing it was over), it was impossible not to be caught up in it – and to be grateful for the opportunity to revisit it and learn something new. Plenty of new things, actually. The Greenwich Village Orchestra conclude their most ambitious season to date with a pops concert – something which, if they’ve done it before, they haven’t in almost twenty years – on May 7 at 3 PM featuring singers Grasan Kingsberry and Betsy Struxness.
Self-directed British choir Stile Antico might well be the world’s best-loved Renaissance vocal group. They work at a daunting pace, always on tour, always changing their repertoire and always recording it when they do. They have a passion for the obscure, the titanic – if you haven’t heard them sing John Sheppard’s Media Vita, you haven’t lived – as well as the pensive and poignant. Their latest album Divine Theatre: Sacred Motets by Giaches De Wert – is streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing their signature lustre and dynamics to the auditorium at 150 W 83rd St., between Amsterdam and Columbus Ave. on Feb 25 at 8 PM. Tix are available via the Miller Theatre at Columbia; the box office at 116th and Broadway is open M-F, noon-6. You can get in for $30 if you’re willing to settle for a seat that’s not on top of the stage.
This concert promises material from familiar composers including Thomas Tallis, Clemens Non Papa, Orlando Gibbons, Robert Ramsey and others. Why would Stile Antico want to go to bat for De Wert, five hundred years after his heyday? Maybe because his liturgical works are undeservedly obscure, as opposed to his pioneering madrigals. Born near Antwerp, he spent most of his life in Italy working for local tyrants, primarily in Mantua. His main boss interceded with the Vatican to allow a more liberal mass that gave De Wert room to be his innovative self. And none other than Claudio Monteverdi cited him as an influence. Some people would consider this analogy farfetched, but if Monteverdi is proto-Bach, maybe De Wert is proto-Buxtehude.
The new album opens with waves of vocals, a brief rondo and then a steadily pulsing magic carpet of counterpoint, a series of currents, low, midrange and high – in constant and fascinating flux. Not all of these works have constant six-part harmony, which makes the effect all the more thrilling when it occurs.
Polyphony that would make the most ambitious art-rock band insanely jealous; jauntily insistent echo effects; a steadily creeping gothic sweep; a rather stern processional; unexpected rhythmic and thematic shifts, in keeping with whatever fire-and-brimstone narratives there are to illustrate. and eventually, holiday carol-like cheer all make an appearance. It’s no wonder Monteverdi held this composer in such high regard.
The standouts in choirs are inevitably easiest to pick up on at opposite extremes: resolute bass Will Dawes, spellbinding soprano Helen Ashby and her colleague Rebecca Hickey, with her diamond-cutting presence, are the most instantly recognizable. As much fun as this is to listen to in the dim light of a laptop late at night after a few drinks, nothing beats hearing this group in concert.
“They’re amazing,” the friendly retiree whispered to her brand-new concertgoing pal, a New York City firefighter in his 20s. A couple of rows closer to the Carnegie Hall stage, two women in their forties, a married couple, quietly affirmed that. And after the mighty voices of the New York Choral Society had wound up their triumphant performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass there last night, a teen in the third row dressed like one of the rappers in the 80s group Kid ’N Play gave them a standing ovation. The accolades on the ensemble’s press page run on and on; this concert attested that just about every demographic in this city shares those feelings.
Spontaneous applause had broken out after the first movement, possibly triggered by how meticulously and seemingly effortlessly way the sopranos in the group had followed soprano soloist Vanessa Vasquez’s exuberant flurries of glossolalia with their own, in perfect unison. If you think that’s hard to do by yourself, imagine the challenge of having to match your bandmates’ cadences with that kind of split-second precision.
This piece got its nickname after the story spread that the composer had been inspired by a British admiral’s pursuit of Napoleon. That might well be true, considering that Haydn was an Anglophile. What it also sounds like is that he wanted to write something so glorious that it would earn him a follow-up commission. Beyond being a flamboyant birthday present for a Hungarian princess, its raison d’etre as a “mass for troubled times” doesn’t really make itself apparent until after the opening festivities. This long party for churchgoing late-18th century one-percenters ran its course before getting switched out for more formidable gravitas. The rest of the soloists – tenor Zach Borichevsky, bass Sava Vemic and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer – locked in on Haydn’s signature humor, as did the choir and orchestra, who took it out in a decisively boisterous, precise yet comfortably fluid series of volleys.
The original program had that piece first on the bill, followed by Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, Op. 9. Flipping the script and putting the Durufle first was logical in that it’s much quieter and has none of Haydn’s fireworks. But it’s a vastly more profound piece of music, and the ensemble delivered it that way. The program notes alluded to the composer following Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, but other than a muted sense of grief, the two pieces have little in common. And this one is hardly easy to sing, with its so-ancient-they’re-new-again Gregorian chant themes and shapeshifting, uneven meters. But musical director David Hayes led the singers through an impeccably balanced rendition that offered guarded hope, something that’s been gravely in need over these past three weeks or so.
The orchestral performance was as sublime as the voices. Durufle, longtime organist of Notre Dame, peppers the work with poignant cameos: distant terror from a tritone riff or two on the organ; ghastly shivers from the low strings, uneasily starry resonance from the harp and a moment where first violist Ronald Carbone took centerstage in his section in the piece’s most harrowing if understated cadenza. Fischer got a solo as well and channeled deep, wounded soul in vivid contrast to her untethered ebullience in the Haydn.
The New York Choral Society sing the New York City premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion at St. Bartholomew’s Church on April 8 at 8 PM with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and organist Jason Roberts.
Inside the Town Hall last night, the atmosphere was not quite as dark and stormy as the unseasonable torrents pelting the midtown streets. Out of the rain, a robust, enthusiastic, mostly Russian-speaking crowd were engaged by some of the most otherworldly sounds resonating on any New York stage this year. Music from the Republic of Georgia is instantly recognizable – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. While the twelve men of the eclectic and often electrifying choir Ensemble Basiani sometimes echoed the solemn, brooding quality of the Russian tradition, as well as a couple of interludes of lustrous polyphony in the same vein as Palestrina or Monteverdi, most of their music was strikingly and unmistakably distinctive.
Singing completely from memory, the choir seamlessly aligned an endlessly shifting series of uneasy close harmonies, when they weren’t firing on twelve individual cylinders’ worth of wry, sometimes droll call-and-response. Much of the material in their repertoirs dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, yet those harmonies are so strangely sophisticated that they’re avant garde: music that old suddenly becomes new again. Stravinsky took melodies like those from further north on the Russian continent and turned them into the Rite of Spring – nobody knew at the time how much he was simply appropriating ancient village themes.
There wasn’t a lot of the ornamentation found in Ukrainian, Baltic and Balkan music in this set, but when there was, the choir worked those effects for all the deadpan humor they were worth. One number pulsed along with an emphatic “huh” refrain worthy of James Brown. The opening and closing pieces featured one of the tenor voices leaping around, utilizing a device that came across as half yodel, half chirp. And he was very good at it!
Likewise, the group worked the dynamics up and down, from insistent, rhythmic agrarian chants, to rapt hymns, to a handful of slowly crescendoing, hypnotic themes which a couple of guys in the ensemble accompanied with bandura lutes. Another number featured a larger-body lute to match the heft of the music. One of those songs, possibly the biggest hit with the audience, was recognizable as a larger-scale arrangement of an ancient folk tune memorably recorded by the duo of acclaimed American singers Eva Salina and Aurelia Shrenker on their classic AE album. The audience finally came out of their trance and began a spontaneous clapalong; at the end of the concert, they wouldn’t let the group go and after several standing ovations were treated to three encores. Ensemble Basiani’s next stop on their American tour is November 1 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S Goodwin Ave in Urbana, IL; tix are $33.
This October 28 at 7 PM one of the most esteemed choral ensembles in this country, the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola celebrate their parish’s 150th anniverary with a program of rare works from the Jesuit tradition by 17th century composers Domenico Zipoli and his contemporaries: Jan Josef Ignac Brentner, Bartolomé Massa and Martin Schmid. The roughly fifty-voice group, conducted by the fearlessly ambitious K. Scott Warren, is bolstered by soprano Sarah Griffiths, mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein and tenor Douglas Purcell along with a period instrument chamber ensemble. This might be your only opportunity to hear material that’s never before been performed in North America, and if this ensemble doesn’t do it, might never be performed again here.
There was a buzz at the reception after the choir’s first performance of the 2016 season. They’d just stunned a sold-out crowd with an exhaustive, era-spanning and genre-hopping performance that ranged from the pre-baroque to the present day. The theme was the ancient Greek elements: earth, air, fire and water. For the record, there was no Earth, Wind and Fire song on the bill – maybe next time they can transfix the crowd with a fifty-voice take of Boogie Wonderland. The controversy this time out concerned the merits of interspersing the four Vvialdi-inspired movements of Frank Ferko‘s The Seasons – a richly dynamic, rapturously ambitious string quartet with choir – along with selections from Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns From the Big Veeda suite, amid the other works on the bill, rather than playing each suite all the way through without interruption.
Warren opted for defamiliarizing everyone, making a strikingly seamless shift between the 21st century American avant garde, late Romanticism drawing heavily on Indian influences, rapt minimalism, knotty earlier 20th century works and the occasional friendly, familiar departure into lustrous Renaissance polyphony. The younger contingent in the crowd heartily endorsed Warren’s ambition; an older crowd voiced a mixed response. Whatever your taste, if you think that keeping up was hard on the audience, imagine being among the choir gathered onstage. Singers are routinely expected to deliver material in unfamiliar genres and languages without a hitch, but this was a real workout for everyone concerned.
What concertgoers might forget is that this world-class choir – although frequently augmented with the prowess of internationally known professionals – it remains at its heart a local church ensemble, albeit a magnet for Manhattan’s best voices. If that isn’t testament to the resilence of New York under the luxury condo blitzkrieg, nothing is. They made the shifts between genres look easy. On the minimalist side, two pieces from Julia Adolphe‘s immersively coloristic Sea Drean Elegies were arguably the most rapturous points of the concert. On the other hand, that could easily have been said about the crescendoing eclecticism of Stephen Paulus’ Songs from the Japanese, or the concert’s ambitious concluding number, composer John Kennedy’s Someday. As for the Ferko, arguably the most memorable of all the works on the bill, its bristling, trickily rhythmic second movement almost seemed to make more sense when, amid several detours, its hypnotically swaying Summer gave way to the kind of ambered, prayerful lustre his work is known for, in the final two movements. You can experience the same kind of rapture on the Upper East Side on the 28th.
Lesley Flanigan is sort of this decade’s counterpart to Laurie Anderson. Like Anderson, Flanigan has a background in sculpture, which informs her dynamic, sometimes disarmingly intimate, sometimes toweringly lush soundscapes. Where Anderson leads an ensemble on violin or keys, Flanigan creates her aural sculptures with layers of vocals and custom-made speakers, which she builds herself and utilizes for subtle layers of feedback. She has a characteristially enveloping, hypnotic new album, Hedera – streaming at Bandcamp – and a show on April 1 (no joke) at 7 PM at National Sawdust, sharing a bill with similarly adventurous vocalists C Spencer Yeh, Daisy Press & Nick Hallet, and Maria Chavez. Cover is $20
The album comprises two epic tracks. The title cut, set to the looping, trance-inducing rhythm of a broken tape deck, subtly builds variations on an otherworldly, strangely disquieting two-chord vamp. Without effects, Flanigan sings in a strong yet ethereal voice that takes on an even more otherworldly quality as she subtly adds layers and layers of to the mix, with subtle changes in reverb, rhythm and timbre. As the piece rise to the level of a fullscale choir, Flanigan caps it with a lead line that soars overhead with uncharacteristic angst. The dynamic underneath – cold mechanical loop versus reassuringly immersive human voices – underscores that unease. But as the voices reach a long peak at the end, there’s a sense of triumph in the sonic cathedral.
The second track – the b-side, if you want – is Can Barely Feel My Feet. Flanigan’s minute shifts in pitch add an enigmatic edge to the lustrous resonance, raised sevefal notches when oscillations from the speakers come into play. While Flanigan’s music is typically dreamy and peaceful, she gives herself a real workout in live performance. There’s practically a dance component to her stage work, lithe and agile as she tirelessly glides and scooches between her mixing board and speakers, even more impressive considering that all the while she doesn’t miss a beat and her voice continues to resonate, unwaveringly.
Saturday night at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the West Village, Cantori New York sang an often harrowing, riveting program of powerful, socially relevant US and New York premieres. Director Mark Shapiro conducted the ensemble with a spring-loaded intensity and a beaming sense of accomplishment, mirrored by the group smiling back at him. This ensemble is obviously having the time of their lives pushing the envelope.
In the same vein as Pablo Casals stumbling on the Bach Cello Suites in a junk shop, Shapiro had discovered the distinctive and often mesmerizing work of Italian composer Bruno Bettinelli while browsing randomly in a music store. Bettinelli’s work is virtually unknown in this country and almost as obscure elsewhere. When Shapiro contacted the composer’s onetime publisher in anticipation of conducting the American premiere of Bettinelli’s Three New Madrigals, they had no idea who he was: “Good luck with that,,” was the response, more or less.
Which is astonishing. Shapiro and Bettinelli would eventually become friends, and shortly before he died, the composer sent the conductor copies of his entire body of work. The triptych being debuted raised the question of how many other intricately and imaginatively arranged works might be kicking around in Shapiro’s vaults. The performance began with Parole in Cerchio (Words in the Round), a retelling of a simple six-word Petrarch poem, in this case beginning and ending with love. Raptly hymnal, replete with of echo effects and reshaped syllables, its tricky counterpart balanced by a wave motion of sorts, it was a showcase for the group’s rhythmic cohesion.
By contrast, Lo Struzzo (The Ostrich), a jovial and ultimately triumphant piece, had a sea chantey-type exuberance that stopped short of buffoonery, with some unanticipatedly eerie chromatics that the group marched up and down the scale about midway through. Shapiro described the final work, Convien Al Secol Nostro (Being Part of Our Century) as a lament for a troubled era, a vividly distant medieval mirror for our own. Building tension with striking contrasts between bass voices and high sopranos, it was awash in uneasy close harmonies and a maze of counterrythms. And no easy answers.
Another US premiere, Latvian composer Maija Einfelde‘s At the Edge of the Earth traced the Prometheus saga in twelve dynamic segments. Looking about as comfortable with the Latvian text as any group of Americans could be, the ensemble made their way methodically through minimalistically pulsing, tightly wound harmonies, jarring melodic adjacencies and a very subtle and intricate game of telephone where notes would be handed off from voice to voice. They took all this through an unexpectedly lilting folk song, a dirgey Slavic work song of sorts and finally a decidedly unresolved ending. The abyss, for this particular Prometheus, is a deep and frigid place.
The program reached a peak with the New York premire of Frank Ferko‘s La Remontee Des Cendres (Rising from the Ashes), utilizing chillingly graphic, tormented, anguished segments from Tahar Ben Jalloun‘s First Gulf War-era epic poem. Told from the point of view of several Iraqi war survivors and victims, it has a shattering eloquence. An eight-piece brass-and-string ensemble anchored by Frank Cassara’s almost subsonic, distantly thunderous bass drum and Kris Saebo’s ominous downtuned bass carried Ferko’s terse, cruelly fatalistic foreshadowing in between the choir’s somber passages. A muted sense of horror was everywhere, in the same vein as Shostakovich’s most harrowing works (String Quartet No. 8 comes to mind). Countertenor Siman Chung and soprano Halley Gilbert added knifes-edge intensity on the high end, up to a couple of horror-stricken, explosive crescendos, a hint at something approximating a peaceful ending, a jaggedly leaping march and eventually a decay into defeated atmospherics whose effect lingered long past a series of standing ovations. Like the Bettinelli piece, it’s a shock that this hasn’t been performed here before.
Cantori New York’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 14 at St. Luke in the Fields featuring Dame Ethel Smith’s rarely performed 1930 cult favorite cantata The Prison. And on March 16,at 7 PM under the direction of conductor K. Scott Warren, the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola join with soprano Tami Petty for Ferko’s intense Stabat Mater for unaccompanied mixed chorus and soprano solo; plus harpist Victoria Drake joins the choir for the New York premiere of William Culverhouse’s Requiem, at St. Ignatius Church, Park Ave. and 84th St.; cover is $25.
That the Mozart Requiem wasn’t the centerpiece of the program last night at Trinity Church speaks to the ambition of conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley and the transformative brilliance of his choir, Seraphic Fire. The sixteen-piece ensemble put on a virtuosic display of vocal prowess and daunting extended technique, not for the sake of show but for emotional impact. The sold-out crowd – comprising all ages and pretty much every demographic that exists in this multicultural city – rewarded them with a series of standing ovations.
Quigley programmed the Mozart as a coda, including new material by Gregory Spears, replacing the three next-to-last segments originally cobbled together by Franz Sussmayr in the wake of Mozart’s death. On one hand, this was as much of stretch for the audience as it was for the emsemble. Sure, singers on as elite a level as this crew are expected to shift on a dime between very diverse idioms, but there was definitely some gearshifting going on as the group – backed elegantly by chamber ensemble the Sebastians – voiced Spears’ minimalistic and frequently challenging variations on comfortably post-baroque Mozart riffs. Spears didn’t follow Mozart’s eighteenth century tonalities for long, but he did stay true to the original thematically, moving between stately waltz time, lustrous washes of sound and plaintively prayerful interludes. Since the Requiem is an incomplete work – if you include all the repetition, only about twenty percent of it is original Mozart – lots of composers have taken up the challenge of wrapping it up. Quigley encouraged the crowd to see this new version as a requiem in the broad sense of the word, a memorial service open to those who need to contribute and share
Interestingly, Quigley didn’t direct the Mozart portions of the work as a mighty, all-stops-out tour de force as choirs tend to do. Instead, he led the group on a matter-of-fact build through sorrow and wistfulness to the fullscale angst of where Mozart realizes that this is finally it.
The rest of the program was sublime. The choir opened with Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, its enveloping, misty textures and endless washes of sustain showcasing the singers’ seemingly effortless command of circular breathing. Baroque composer Heinrich Schutz’s Selig, Sind die Toten, with its striking balance of celestial highs and pillowy lows, made an apt segue with Mendelssohn’s Richte Mich, Gott, considering how much its early Romantic composer drew on Schutz’s forward-thinking orchestration. The group channeled the same kind of confident ebullience and optimism that characterize Mendelssohn’s organ works.
Throughout the terse, nebulously minimalist variations on simple, baroque motives in a new arrangement of Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays – originally written for vocal quartet and loops rather than a full sixteen-piece ensemble – the group foreshadowed what they’d do with Spears’ work a little later. And soprano Molly Quinn made the most of her flickering and then soaringly riveting appearances in front of the choir, in and out of Dominick DiOrio’s I Am, a prayerfully-tinged, bittersweet launching pad for her literally spine-tingling flights to the upper registers as it wound up on an optimistic note. Seraphic Fire return to Trinity Church on April 20 at 7:30 PM with a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem.
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.