Washougal Art & Music Festival

Germany’s Got Talent, Leipzig 1723 edition: Framing Bach’s ‘Magnificat’

A recent OBF/CMNW concert presented Bach’s great choral work alongside its contemporary competitors.

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Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste, El Greco, Verkündigung.
Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste, El Greco, Verkündigung.

The story of Telemann, Graupner and Bach makes good reading even without the music to back it up. The paths of these three German Baroque composers intersected and paralleled numerous times three centuries ago. They were acquaintances and admirers of each other in life–and on July 1 at Kaul Auditorium in Portland they were united again.

What stars aligned to make this concert happen? The Oregon Bach Festival assembled the performing forces, Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival sponsored their appearance in Portland (the concert debuted the previous night in Eugene), and Jos van Veldhoven–whose life work has been the study of Baroque music–curated and prepared the musicians. Oh, and a big ol’ tour bus sure helped.

The Kaul Auditorium audience prepares to hear OBF Chorus and Orchestra perform Bach's "Magnificat" at CMNW 2023. Photo by Nicole Lane.
The Kaul Auditorium audience prepares to hear OBF Chorus and Orchestra perform Bach’s “Magnificat” at CMNW 2023. Photo by Nicole Lane.

Out of the thousands of choral/orchestral works composed by Telemann, Graupner and Bach, which did van Veldhoven choose for this OBF 2023 kickoff concert? Well, that’s quite an interesting story so please allow this little flashback prologue:

Mid 1722

Georg Philipp Telemann, age 41, is employed as school Kantor and director of five churches in Hamburg, a northern seaport city in Germany. Previously, he attended university in Leipzig, where he wrote popular secular works and enlisted the artistry of local Thomaskirche students–much to the consternation of Johann Kuhnau, the Thomaskirche Kantor at that time. In Hamburg, Telemann has quite a fine reputation but, again, is being criticized for spending too much time with secular compositions. 

Christoph Graupner, 500 miles south in Darnstadt and age 39, hasn’t been paid by the court in several months and his ensembles have been reduced. He is known for his operas, is building a reputation in sacred works and is highly regarded by his circle of colleagues and friends, one of whom was Telemann. He had been a student of the Leipzig Thomasschule and had studied under Kantor Johann Kuhnau. But with his position in jeopardy, he’s checking out the job market.

Johann Sebastian Bach, age 37, is the Hofcapellmeister at court of Köthen, a position gained only after a punishment of four weeks in prison after he demanded his release from Weimar. He is composing instrumental music that would become some of his most well known works. He has several times applied for the same jobs as his friend Telemann and is still looking for his dream job. He’s not spent much time in Leipzig.

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Johann Kuhnau, Kantor at Thomaskirche in Leipzig for 21 years dies. A job search begins.

Late 1722 – early 1723

The Leipzig city council offers the Thomaskirche job to Telemann, a known entity, who then parlays the offer into a salary raise and promise of more autonomy in Hamburg opera. So he did not miss the 100th anniversary of the Hamburg Admiralty in April for which he composed a sizable secular cantata, “Hamburger Admiralitätsmusik” (TWV 24:1), the first two movements of which opened this Portland concert. To his contemporaries, he was the greatest master of his time.

The runner-up candidate was – you catching on now? – Graupner. He must have had a pretty good audition with the second work on this OBF concert “Aus der Tiefen rufen wir”, GWV 1113/23a. But when his boss denied his request for leave Graupner was forced to remain–but was immediately granted back wages and other concessions, and went on to compose an enormous body of compositions, including over 1400 cantatas.

Third in line, J. S. Bach, possibly ranked behind the others because he was not a familiar name in Leipzig. Well, that and the jail thing. One of his two audition pieces “Jesus nahm zi sich die Zwölfe,” concluded the first half of this concert. It was good enough to get him the job–in the third round. 

Comparisons and contrasts

Three great Baroque composers with a terrific backstory and a wonderful Oregon Bach Festival concert kickoff for their “Wanderlust” season.

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Was van Veldhoven’s aim to offer comparisons and contrasts? Even if not, it’s what we do as intelligent listeners anyway, right? With this wonderfully conceived concert we are privy to what the Leipzig City council heard, and can reflect upon at least the musical variables involved in the choice. Perhaps play a little “Germany’s Got Talent, Leipzig 1723 edition” mind game. Because van Veldhoven conducted the Netherlands Bach Society for thirty-five years, and has been responsible for a remarkable output of high quality NBS videos of complete works of Bach and others, he probably did program for beauty and for intellect. After all, this is one of the hallmarks of the OBF, yes? Excellence in performance, illuminating insights and tidbits of history to gnaw on.

Conductor Jos von Veldhoven. Photo courtesy of Netherlands Bach Society.
Conductor Jos von Veldhoven. Photo courtesy of Netherlands Bach Society.

With the first two chords, Telemann’s “Overture” to his Admiralty Music jumped off of the Kaul stage. It’s written to do just that, of course. The OBF Period Orchestra’s delivery was stately and crisp, strikingly accurate silences setting up the exclamation marks of the fanfare. Then, good ol’ Telemann wrote musical waves for the orchestra and van Veldhoven surfed the swells with them, conducting the musical lines not the measure lines. The trumpets did not deliver as confident a performance in the Telemann as they did later in the concert. But the string soloists soared in the fugue section and van Veldhoven let them, dropping his arms and taking the helm only upon return of the full ensemble.

The 16-voice OBF Chorus, a complement also befitting the period, brought librettist Michael Richey’s words – and Telemann’s painting of those words – to the celebration in the second movement. How refreshing was the placement of the singers, six and six at left and right and a quartet of soloists in the middle, all on risers, with orchestra in the center. Flexibility in placement of forces is essential! This design was ideal.

This could have been a toss off concert opener. A couple movements from a huge Telemann work, 31 movements clocking in at 90 plus a minutes. Listen to the entire work here:

Van Veldhoven treated it with such dignity, no phrase neglected, with studied contrasts in dynamics and texture. Great respect for Telemann, the performers and for the audience.

In Graupner’s cantata “Aus der Tiefen rufen wir” (From the deepest comes our plea) we heard what the Leipzig search committee heard: a solidly constructed work with extended choral passages and the requisite arias and recitatives for the solo voices. 

The performance itself was fine. Clear, well executed solos and the same precision of delivery. I wondered what was missing and thought that perhaps Graupner’s genius could be found in the word painting. In the Telemann’s music, “flames” were musically ignited and when the text said “lift up our voices,” up they went. Not so with Graupner. Musically, suffering and joy received similar treatments, detached and impersonal. And try as they might the performers couldn’t reanimate it. The text stated “deliverance would be coming soon” but it didn’t show up.

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Or did it? Perhaps my expectation was just set so high because Bach sets such a high standard. Graupner’s music was good music in its time, and that we still have the great body of his oeuvre is a bit miraculous. The cantatas, like this one on this program were only pulled from obscure bundles and properly cataloged in 1970–coincidentally year one of the Oregon Bach Festival.

Perhaps the purpose of the Graupner cantata was to heighten our appreciation of Bach’s Cantata 22, which concluded the first half and to have us look forward to the work considered by many to be their their favorite Bach piece, the Magnificat.

“Jesus nahm zi sich die Zwölfe” (BWV 22) delivers story in text and music. Even the titular first line–“Jesus took the twelve to himself [and spoke]”–sets up the expectation of the Lenten drama about to be played out. The entire work pays “careful attention to presenting the texts so that the meaning of the words is amplified, rather than obscured, by the music.” (That is a quote from one of the 22 program annotations written by CMNW Chief Annotator Elizabeth Schwartz. She, Ethan Allred and the rest of her team deserve a big round of applause).

In the alto aria (really a duet with the oboe) “My Jesus, draw me after you” the music pulls the singer forward, step by step. Alto Rhianna Cockrell let the music and text guide her, unforced, resolute, ready to suffer with Christ. Bass Edmund Milly distractingly punched certain words into the hall. Pity since his lovely voice could have ebbed with the text in the wonderful acoustic. If you want to just bask in some Bach-ish word painting, the treatment of the word “everlasting” (ewiges) in the final phrase of the tenor aria “Meine alles in allem”, rendered so serenely in this concert by Steven Soph, is a kick: Listen to it here.

The recorded year of completion of this cantata is 1723 but since Bach auditioned in Leipzig with this piece on February 7, 1723 it must have been a premiere performance as an audition? Gutsy. And well programmed to showcase some fine solo work and give the chorus a break.

How beautiful it is

Earlier in the evening, I hopped on one of the golf cart shuttles with a young woman driver and asked her if she was going to get to hear the concert. Her response–“I hope I can. I sang the Magnificat in high school. We probably botched it but I just remember how beautiful it was”–reminded me why the Bach Magnificat is so well loved. She asked me if I had ever sung it and remarked on how lucky I was to have had so many opportunities. Yeah, but the way her face looked as she recalled her one Magnificat experience–she was also very lucky. I think her name was Charlotte and I hope she got in. 

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The Magnificat is accessible. Within reach musically, from fine high schools to church and community musicians to professional ensembles. And it is accessible to all level of listener. Only 30 minutes, with easily understood text that yearns to be sung. From “my soul” to “world without end”–how beautiful it is.

So what did we expect to hear from these forces on this night in Portland? Well, not to be botched, of course. But wouldn’t it be great if this performance brought something for both the first time listener and seasoned Magnificat fan club member? It did, every step of the way.

Van Veldhoven turned the precious work back into poetry. Twelve separate movements became one song with each statement interacting with the previous and the next. Of course, that’s the way the text is written and that’s the way the music is structured. So what did van Veldhoven do to enable such cohesion?

First, every stage movement leading to the next piece was executed or at the ready by the conclusion of the previous piece. The standard routine of cut off, wait for soloist to come forth, look around to see if they’re ready, downbeat–nope, not van Veldhoven.

There was also something almost magical – but was certainly strategic – about the way in which van Veldhoven’s tempo in one piece was just right for the next. For example, the opening movement “My soul doth magnify the Lord” was paced so that the continuation of the phrase “…and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” was the same tactus. And on it went, adding to the feeling that it was one continuous piece of music.

The soloist for that second movement, Olivia Miller, presented the first vocal image of Mary. Her voice shimmered, a resonant but unwavering tinkle, perfect for the simple statement of joy. It was a nice contrast to next movement “Quia respexit” and MaryRuth Miller’s pure, naïve sound with no false maturity pushed into her lower range. She and the wonderful oboe d’amore blended like the chocolate and marshmallow center of a s’more just off the flame.

Once again, van Veldhoven just brought the conclusion of the previous poetry phrase in organically. Often the “Omnes, Omnes” enters fiercely, but this conductor left the might to movement 5, the “Quia fecit” bass solo. It is a short solo with a flourish and was nicely spooled out by Harrison Hintzsche. He didn’t growl on the low tones and, like the previous soloists, seemed to “get” the text.

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There was never a feeling of “and here comes the chorus.” The chorus and orchestra were one ensemble and of equal importance. This was a wonderful ensemble. Only the vocal soloists were named in the program. It would have been nice to know the names of the remaining 7 singers and the instrumentalists, especially key soloists like those in the “Et misericordia.” This was a mini ensemble that seemed like they had made music together for years. They found a sonic groove and at certain moments their intimacy was uncanny. 

Ask many a tenor which pieces come up most often in their nightmares and “Deposuit” would be near the top of the list. Not Corey Shotwell. His voice was strong, yet unforced and he had such fluidity in the melismas. Stuff of dreams.

My eyes and ears were glued to the two flutes and captivating alto soloist, Sylvia Leith, in the “Esurientes.” It was like they’d been looped in studio, so perfectly synced and matched in tone. It is a brilliant little aria and definitely received the award for best single last note of the night. The audience reacted with slight gleeful giggle. And then they held their breath for 37 bars of music, the “Suscepit Israel.”

The pulling of the thread begins in soprano one, then the alto get their hands on it and then the second soprano and they just pull and pull. The brilliance of Bach! Look at the score to this and/or listen it here:

Van Veldhoven conducting the Netherlands Bach Society takes the moment. Appreciate how the line – the connection to the forefathers – is never broken. Hear how the oboes’ sustained descant supports that lineage harmonically from on high. 

The Magnificat was Bach’s way of introducing himself to Leipzig on July 2, 1773. Exactly, said van Veldhoven, 300 years ago from this concert–Germany time. If Leipzig didn’t know the depths and devotion of his spiritualism up till then, they knew it after. I bet the city council applauded each other afterward, as well as Bach, on a job well done. 

And so, two choruses finish the Magnificat. But even at the end van Veldhoven let the drama build. The “Sicut” didn’t burst forth, it built, moved forward to the climactic return of the text and music of movement one. Just as Bach wrote it. Amen.

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In the entire 30 minutes van Veldhoven’s hands never indicated a cessation. Even his cut offs seemed to lift upward. Everything moved forward, from the smallest phrase through entire movements. It seemed like everyone on stage enjoyed it. The audience sure did. 

There were two unexpected treats still to come. The first was offered that evening when the performers granted us peace with a short encore, the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from Bach’s B-Minor Mass. A special gift.

This second treat is still available to you. This concert was performed on the previous evening in Eugene and was preceded by the Hinkle Distinguished Lecture “Let’s Talk” with van Veldhoven as special guest and was live streamed. Aw, dagnabbit. Why was that such a well-kept secret? I, too, was totally bummed until I discovered that IT IS STILL AVAILABLE ON-LINE.

(Oops, was that supposed to be a secret, too?)

Well, here it is. As a baroque concert postprandial, it works quite well. But whether you attended the concert or not this interview is a gem. Here’s the link:

You can continue to hear great music from the Oregon Bach Festival (tickets here) which runs through July 16 and from Chamber Music Northwest, who travels to Eugene on July 11, and whose Portland Summer Festival continues through July 24 (streaming until July 28). Full Program here.

Connections

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There is one more super-secret live-steam OBF Hinkle Lecture, this one on the Penderecki Credo on July 8, 9:45 am. Here’s the link for when it goes live.

Choral Music at the AGO

The American Guild of Organists conference is coming to Portland and two Portland Choirs are featured. Cantores in Ecclesia will perform on Monday, July 10 and Cappella Romana on July 12. Check the full concert schedule and get ticket information here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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