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Ton Koopman brings Bach’s secular and sacred vocal music to the SFS podium

Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Ton Koopman’s second program as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall featured both the secular and sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach. As a result the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) performed throughout the entirety of the evening, joined by guest soloists Teresa Wakim (soprano), Bogna Bartosz (mezzo), Tilman Lichdi (tenor), and Klaus Mertens (bass). On the secular side the program began with the BWV 207a cantata Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten (up, blaring sounds of merry trumpets), composed to celebrate the name-day of Friedrich August II, Elector and Duke of Saxony (also Augustus III, King of Poland and Lithuania). The intermission was then followed by the Kyrie and Gloria settings that Bach composed in 1733 and later included as the first part of his BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor.

BWV 207a has a backstory that says much about Bach’s personality. There are many anecdotes told about his impatient character, leading one to believe that, had he been aware of the amount of bureaucracy behind the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, he might have been less eager to assume the position of Cantor there. It did not take him long to discover that he was accountable not only to the directors of the Thomasschule but also to the administrators of Leipzig University and the members of the Leipzig City Council.

The student of Bach’s biography thus discovers that his capacity for making music was complemented by a talent for composing irate letters. Readers may recall my writing about one of those letters having been set to music as one of the movements of Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers. In that particular letter he was complaining about not getting paid, but he had any number of ways to give his bureaucratic complex of overseers grief.

At some point in his letter-writing campaign, Bach decided that he might be more successful if he had some allies in higher places. While Leipzig was a self-governing city, it paid fealty to the Saxon Elector, serving as “protection money.” Bach decided that winning the favor of Friedrich August II might give him more clout when dealing with his Leipzig bureaucrats. BWV 207a was one of several pieces composed to win the Elector’s favor. He was eventually recognized with the title Compositeur, but this never improved his bargaining position in Leipzig.

To be fair, BWV 207a did not involve considerable effort on Bach’s part, since much of it involved repurposing earlier work. At the campus radio station where I worked, this music was known affectionately as the “First Brandenburg Cantata,” since two of the movements from the BWV 1046 “Brandenburg” concerto in F major are included, one as an instrumental Ritornello movement (substituting trumpets for the original horn parts) and the other setting the opening chorus, complete with the Adagio interruption in the middle of the movement. The work is “officially” described as a “Dramma per musica” (musical drama); but there is no narrative to the text. Rather, it is a moderately effusive encomium (by an anonymous source) praising the virtues of Saxony and its Duke.

This may sound somewhat silly, but the music is still delightful. It even begins with a march in the anachronistic style of earlier French composers, which was interpreted as a processional in last night’s performance. Members of the chorus came down the two central floor-level aisles and then ascended to their places, followed by the four soloists. This may have taken a bit longer than anticipated, since Koopman, at the end of the processing, seemed in a bit of a rush to get to the podium to conduct the final measures.

As was the case last week, some of the finest moments in this cantata involved vocal movements in a chamber music setting. In one case this involved a recitative by Bartosz accompanied only by cello (Peter Wyrick, executing a delightful stream of arpeggios) and harpsichord (Jonathan Dimmock); and the sounds were heavenly. However, it is also important to note that, with moderately larger instrumental resources than last week, along with chorus and soloists, the overall sense of balance was much improved. Furthermore, if the text was a bit on the long side, Koopman took it at a relatively perky clip, meaning that no movement overstayed its welcome.

The Mass settings, on the other hand, were far less frivolous in nature and far more sophisticated in structure. Over the course of eleven movements (three arias, two duets, and six choruses), the listener was treated to Bach’s mastery of counterpoint at its finest. Here, again, Koopman must be recognized for his capacity for balance, through which the attentive listener could appreciate the lines of the individual parts and how they interleaved (particularly in the choral work) without ever getting lost in a meaningless blur. The stunning vocal solo work was further complemented by some first-rate instrumental solos by Nadya Tichman on violin and Nicole Cash on horn.

This performance of some of Bach’s finest work may not have involved period instruments, but Koopman’s interpretation still made it a highly memorable encounter with music that has definitely earned the monument status now assigned to it.