Bach Cantata Choir review: A Tale of Three Cities

Music written for yesterday's Leipzig and Dresden delights today's Portland.

by BRUCE BROWNE

‘Twas the best of times…” Sunday’s “Tale of Two Cities” showed another of the many reasons the amateur choirs of Portland are among the best. Ralph Nelson’s Bach Cantata Choir presented a program Sunday in their usual venue: Rose City Park Presbyterian Church.

Leipzig and Dresden, the “Two Cities” highlighted in this 10th season opening concert — one Protestant and one Catholic, the travel time similar to riding a buggy from Portland to Salem — were on Johann Sebastian Bach’s radar. In Leipzig he had a job; in Dresden he wanted a job. And even though Bach would dedicate his great Mass in b minor to the monarchy of Dresden, he would never achieve the working court musician status he coveted. In hindsight Bach would have been a good choice for the burghers of Catholic Dresden, but Bach was a Lutheran.

Bach Cantata Choir performed music by Bach, Buxtehude and Zelenka Sunday.

Bach Cantata Choir performed music by Bach, Buxtehude and Zelenka.

Consisting of four works or excerpts, the program opened with “Haec Dies” (“This is the day the Lord has made”) by a contemporary of Bach, Jan Dismas Zelenka. Connection to J.S.: Zelenka had the job in Dresden that Bach wanted.

Next came a Missa Brevis of Dietrich Buxtehude. Connection to J.S.: 20-year old Bach walked 250 miles from his home town (Arnstadt) to Lübeck (that’s from here to Grants Pass, folks) to spend three months hearing and studying the music and organ virtuosity of Buxtehude.

The last two pieces were by J.S. himself: Cantata 177 (“Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (“I call to you, O Jesus Christ),” followed by the Kyrie Eleison (first full movement) of the b minor Mass.

Both of the latter works featured outstanding soloists: Arwen Meyers, soprano; Laura Thoreson, alto; and Byron Wright, tenor. Myers displayed great facility and beauty of tone and held her ground during the unscheduled absence of the english horn in the intricate third movement duet. Thoreson is without doubt a leading alto in the Portland metropolitan area. She glided effortlessly, with supreme breath management, through the alto range, into the middle reaches of mezzo territory, without a hitch.Wright sings with great zeal and assurance; his tenor voice is ageless and silvery.

The orchestra, too, was well chosen, including violinist Mary Rowell, an excellent soloist in the Bach cantata; standout continuo players cellist Dale Tolliver and bassoonist Dagny Regan; and the virtuosic “pluckiness” of Garrett Jelesma. John Vergin provided a perfect anchor on the portative organ.

The choir sings rhythmically and with conviction. What few peccadillos existed were in part due to the fact that sopranos were effectively singing in one hall, while the rest of the choir is in the other. That is, when part of the choir is under a proscenium-like outcropping, and the rest not — in this case, the sopranos — then there will be, perforce, an acoustical difference in audience perception. The sopranos occasionally sounded pale and thin.

Tenors were terrific. This section has come a mile in the past year or so. The basses did well except for a few of the highest notes, which were reached with some sense of angst.

The b minor Mass’s Kyrie Eleison, “Lord have mercy,” is in three parts, based completely on ancient text. The bookend Kyries are fugal while in the “Christe” Bach invents a duet for soprano and alto, one of the most beautiful offerings in his vocal legacy.

Balance was occasionally a problem in the two choral settings, as the orchestra maintained a steady forte (loud) dynamic and did not allow each voice its own development. A broader spectrum of dynamic response could have brought greater delineation throughout. Additionally, in this performance both Kyries moved at an allegretto (brisk walking) pace, thus negating the contrast between a languid sorrow (Kyrie 1) and a brighter hopefulness (Kyrie 2).

This choir does not need to do much else to maintain their place as one of the excellent oratorio choirs in this city. Keep it up. We look forward to your next “Bach- analia.” Bach may have had his “worst of times” in Dresden, but his music continues to make the best of times for the Bach Cantata Choir and for the city of Portland.

Renowned choral conductor Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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