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American Bach Soloists presents an all-Bach program of secular and sacred music

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in front of "his" church in Leipzig
by Zarafa, from Wikipedia (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the American Bach Soloists (ABS), conducted by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, presented their latest program consisting entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The selections offered both a conjunction of secular and sacred music and a blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar in a rather innovative fashion. The two vocal works on the program featured soprano Kathryn Mueller, countertenor Ian Howell, tenor Derek Chester, and baritone Jesse Blumberg, along with the American Bach Choir. A modest ensemble of six violins and two violas was supplemented with two oboes, one (Debra Nagy doubling on oboe d’amore), one bassoon, and two horns. Continuo was provided by Corey Jamason, alternating between harpsichord and organ, William Skeen on cello, Steven Lehning on violone, and sometimes Dominic Teresi’s bassoon.

The program began with the BWV 1066 orchestral suite in C major. The program notes by John Butt discussed the uncertainties of when and under what circumstances this music was composed. It also emphasized that the numbering of Bach’s four orchestral suites did not take place until the nineteenth century, the first time they were published as a set.

All of the suites begin with an Overture movement, followed by a collection of dances. The dances in BWV 1066 are particularly lively; and four of them (Gavotte, Minuet, Bourrée, and Passepied) follow the ternary da capo (alternativement) form in which the dance is performed in one version, followed by a contrasting setting, after which the original is repeated. In this formal plan that middle section would later be called a “trio;” and, in one of the dances, it was actually played by a trio of the two oboes (Nagy and Stephen Bard) and Teresi’s bassoon. Indeed, in this particular suite, Bach is delightfully generous in his wind writing; and the middle section of his Gavotte has the winds carrying the thematic material while the strings give a unison account of the sort of triadic passage we expect to hear from a horn.

Thomas conducted this music in high spirits, suggesting that Bach was in a good mood when he composed it. (Giving horn music to the string section was probably an example of Bach’s sense of humor.) If the ensemble was relatively small in number, it still filled the sanctuary of St. Mark’s with the grandeur of full-bodied sonorities, thus providing an entirely appropriate overture for the vocal performances that would follow.

The first of these was the BWV 236 “short” Mass setting in G major (short because it set only the Kyrie and Gloria sections). This abbreviated form was part of the Lutheran liturgy, but the text was in Latin. The music is very much on the scale of the sacred cantatas but without any recitatives. The Kyrie and opening Gloria verses are choral movements. There then follow vocal movements with minimal instrumental accompaniment beyond the continuo. The bass sings the “Gratias” with the string section. The “Domine Deus” is set as a duet for soprano and alto along with a solo violinist (Elizabeth Blumenstock). The tenor then sings the “Quoniam” with a solo oboe (Nagy); and the full ensemble provides the concluding “Cum Sancto Spiritu.”

The sacred cantatas are the bread-and-butter of the ABS repertoire. So it was no surprise that BWV 236 should receive the same comprehensive interpretation, giving particular attention to the embedding of chamber music within the larger ensemble settings. (I always enjoy the respect that Thomas shows his instrumentalists. When it is clear that they are playing chamber music, he has no trouble in keeping his role as conductor to the absolute minimum.) This music was certainly not on the grand scale of the BWV 232 B minor setting of the full Mass text. However, there was no shortage of Bach’s elaborate inventiveness in counterpoint or his keen sense of interplay between vocal and instrumental lines. BWV 236 was probably a discovery for much of yesterday’s audience, and Thomas made a solid case that it deserves more listening opportunities.

The second half of the program consisted entirely of the secular cantata BWV 213, “Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen” (let us take care, let us watch). These opening words come from the gods looking down at the young Hercules (alto) at a crossroads at which one direction is guided by the allegorical representation of vice (a soprano) and the other by virtue (tenor). As might be guessed, virtue prevails. (Vice gets only a single aria.)

This musical setting of a moral tale was composed for the eleventh birthday of Friedrich Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony, on September 5, 1733. (Thomas observed that yesterday’s performance took place on the birthday of the Prince Elector’s namesake, George Frideric Handel.) The cantata concludes with Mercury (bass) singing approval of Hercules’ decision, advising comparison with the Prince Elector, an approval that is reinforced in the final chorus.

While the cantata itself was probably new to most of the audience, it actually had a strong ring of familiarity. That was because most of the movements would later find their way into the BWV 248 Christmas oratorio. Thus, the concert provided a case study in Bach’s capacity for self-appropriation, as well as the degree to which the music tended to matter more than the words. (Vice’s seductive aria would return as an innocent little pastoral setting of the Nativity.)

More importantly, Thomas again provided a performance in which one could appreciate Bach’s keen ear for working with his resources. Particularly interesting was the way in which Hercules’ commitment to virtue was accompanied by the two violas in the ensemble (Lisa Grodin and Clio Tilton), as if the deeper sound of the viola reflected the strength of his commitment. (Similar uses of low string sounds arise in Bach’s Passion settings.) The result was an account that was far more engaging and festive than didactic, perhaps even to a level that could be appreciated by an eleven-year-old.