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Review: Boulder Bach Fest's deep exploration

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Boulder Bach Festival (now in its impressive 33rd season) presents a wide array of offerings throughout the year, but this past weekend gave audiences a chance to hear some rarely performed early works by the master. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) moved around a great deal in his early 20s, seeking a profitable and musically rewarding position in several small towns in Germany. On February 21, the festival presented "From the Depths I Call To You," a program of cantatas from these formative and itinerant years. The essence of Bach's original stylistic voice was heard throughout the evening, with some anomalies and unformed ideas thrown in. Conductor and violinist Zachary Carrettin alternately played and led the ensemble in these lively works with panache and enthusiasm that was contagious.

The one non-Bach work on the program was the Concerto for Oboe in D minor by Alessandro Marcello with ornaments by Bach. The sometimes Italianate, sometimes Germanic color and style foreshadowed the stylistic explorations by Bach to come in the rest of the program. With violins in perfect unison, an almost heartbreaking solo by oboist Kristin Olson on the adagio movement, and a pleasantly aggressive presto at the end, this was a surprising and fun introduction to the night. Next, the festival's choir joined the stage for the cantata Der Herr denket an uns BWV 196 ("The Lord thinks on us"). Violinist Paul Miller excelled at leading the continuo as Carrettin took to the conductor's podium, and the seamless transitions between movements gave this slightly later work (from around 1707) a really pleasing smoothness.

Bach's motet for double choir Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229 ("Come, Jesus, come") rounded out the first half of the program. The stately chords filled St. John's Cathedral with overtones. The instrumentalists stood in the midst of the choirs, creating a more full, integrated sound palette, and as ambulance sirens wailed outside, the aria "Drum schliess ich mich" was powerfully, gorgeously affecting.

Working backwards chronologically, the cantata Nach dir, Herr verlanget mich, BWV 150 ("For you Lord, I am longing") was next, and here the vocal soloists joined the instrumental ensemble in a real show of musicianship. Cellist Ezra Seltzer was impressive, especially in the non-stop and harrowing sixteenth notes of the aria "Zedern müssen von den Winden," which he played with clarity and ease. Singers Amanda Balestrieri, Marjorie Bunday, Daniel Hutchings, and Adam Ewing acquitted themselves well, creating a finely-colored blend in partnership with the continuo. Anna Marsh's bassoon added an elegant richness to the counterpoint. The evening closed with the desperate texts of the cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131, which lent its title to the entire program. Combining all of the evening's instrumental and vocal forces, this work had some lovely phrasing and ringing vocal releases, as on the line "denn bein dem Herrn ist die Gnade" ("for with the Lord there is grace"). Virtuosic at moments and full of Bach's harmonic longing, this cantata was a fascinating look at his early experiments and a hint of the greatness to come. Carrettin led his choir and this superior instrumental ensemble in the sometimes serious program with a sense of effortlessness and flair, showing these early works to be full of promise and expressive power.

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