Bach Cantata Choir review: Team effort

Portland chorus and orchestra score points in super Sunday Baroque concert


Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir kicked off another calendar year with “SuperBach” Sunday, only slightly pre-empting the more popular pigskin event. The packed audience was still treated to four “quarters” of enlivenment  —  excellent choral music with the support of a first rate orchestra.

Four faces, four composers. Not equal in reputation, but equal partners in celebrating the pre- Fat Tuesday joy of the season last Sunday at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church. Herren Schutz and Bach are to Baroque choral music what Porche and Benz are to German autos. The other two, Zelenka (Czech) and Marcello (Italian), enjoy less heralded reputations in our time. For that reason among others, I liked this program. Conductor Ralph Nelson brings a good balance to his offerings: the known and the lesser-known.

Bach Cantata Choir.

Bach Cantata Choir.

The program began brilliantly, with oboist Paul Pitkin playing Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C minor. Mr. Pitkin’s phrasings and tone were subtle and supple; he evenly caressed the entire register of the instrument, exhibiting a stillness of body and spirit above virtuosic fingerings. Exquisite. The oboe and orchestra, especially the continuo, were perfectly matched, sensitively directed by Mr. Nelson and the tempo was a forward-moving delight. (If you decide to YouTube this piece, you will notice the more often performed d minor concerto. Same piece, different key.)

The second “quarter” of the concert brought the choir’s more usual fare: Bach cantata BWV 120, Gott man lobet dich in der Stille (God, they praise you in the stillness of Zion). Bach called tunes from the same playbook in more than one part of the work. This was accepted practice at the time, with Bach one of the foremost autoparodists. This version was performed for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig. But the second movement of the cantata has the most lateral passes, having been used by Bach at least twice prior and, later, in the B minor Mass.

Bach pulls off a trick play at the outset, beginning the cantata with a solo aria for alto, repeating the words “aus der stille” (out of silence). There was some disappointment here. Ms. Yokoyama had perhaps not warmed to her task; being first up in the vocal part of the concert can be daunting. In any case, her singing seemed etiolated and distant. The choir and orchestra though, soon made their way toward the goal of the ubiquitous ending chorale with clear-cut recitatives by baritone Benjamin Espana and tenor David Foley, and choruses featuring melismas and well turned phrases. Nan Haemer (soprano) sang with beauty and grace, her lyric and leggiero (light) approach just right for the aria.

There was no “half time” per se, as Mr. Nelson elected to move straight through from Bach to Schutz without intermission (very considerate for the Denver fans among us).

Born exactly 100 years before J.S. Bach, Heinrich Schutz, the great wordsmith in the German Baroque choral tradition, did some things Bach never did: twice studying “across the alps” in Italy, with no less than Monteverdi, and helping to weld the Italian style to the Germanic idiom. Also, living to age 87, he engaged in many different genres and styles throughout that great span: an opera (now lost); motets, and Passions (by all four gospel writers), the latter all a cappella and aesthetically elevated. Bukofzer says that Schutz “elevated the passions into a very rarified atmosphere.”

The motet Die Himmel int erzahlen (The heavens declare the glory of God) is a terrific piece, but we missed the felicity of word accent that’s innate in all Schutz’s work. It needed to be brought out, and that was not palpable to this listener. Conductor Emma Mildred Riggle is the new assistant conductor for the Bach Cantata Choir; they are still getting used to one another. Phrases were constrained and stilted, perhaps by youthful predilection to control rather than guide. But potential abounds: her handling of blend and intonation were excellent.

The double choir Te Deum of Jan Dismas Zelenka, written in celebration of Princess Marie Josepha of Austria, is by turns muscular and weighty at the tutti bookends, then lyrical and plaintive just where one would think: in the arias, duets and a chant. The final movement, “Et rege eos” (“Govern them and lift them up forever”) couldn’t help bordering on the bombastic at times, due to its massive orchestral forces: four trumpets (placed far forward on one side) timpani, and full (Baroque) orchestra, which was especially impressive in the first and last movements. While there was always a good balance with the choir, the portative organ (back and to the rear of the orchestra) was inaudible — a pity, when the multi-talented John Vergin is at the keyboard.

Irene Weldon (alto) sang with confidence the solo “Tu ad liberandum” (“When you delivered [man]”) seeming to sit right in her pocket. Mr. Espana was a strong, vibrant part of the duet “Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes” (“Thou sittest at the hand of God”) and sang an affecting chant in the same work.

The trio featuring Gail D’Aloisio, Jolanda Frischknecht and Irene Weldon, and the pure flute passages, uncovered a special gem: Ms. Frischknecht brings a great deal to the table in her interpretations. Her body displays a gestalt of awareness and responsiveness to every facet of the music. Perhaps it’s her training in euryhthmics.

Zelenka, born in the disputed Bohemian/Czech area of 17th century Germany, lived in Dresden while Bach lived in Leipzig. We have the aforementioned little princess, Marie Josepha, to thank for preserving only a small portion of the great volume of Zelenka’s work. There are some jewels in the collection.

His colleague in Dresden, Johann Adolph Hasse, popular and successful Kapellmeister, will be a featured composer in the Bach Cantata Choir’s next offering on March 13. Hasse biographer and former Portland Symphonic Choir director Dr. David Wilson will conduct and lecture on the great composer. Also on that concert is Bach Cantata BWV 23.

The Bach Cantata choir is one of the best examples of the word “amateur”; truly, they sing for the love of doing it. It is worth pointing out, however, that the orchestra is never amateur; these are some of the finest instrumentalists to be hired in Portland.

Director Ralph Nelson has coached his team through yet another program of challenging and rewarding Baroque music. “SuperBach” Sunday, in Season X, is history. And great music history it is.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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