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Bach Cantata Choir: sweet rejoicing

December 29, 2017
Featured, Music


Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir has grown in artistic excellence in the past several years. The sonic values are fresh and vibrant. This choir has a wide age range, fine choral singers all. Many have labored in the choral trenches for several decades and are joined by a healthy number of those beginning their choral careers. So how do they maintain a composite and youngish sound? Good coaching, perhaps something more ephemeral.

Friday night’s concert offered more evidence of BCC’s growth and clues to its success. Under the leadership of founder Ralph Nelson, the singers and orchestra were fervent and compelling in the main work of the evening, the first three cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio presented at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church to an overflow crowd.

Bach Cantata Choir sang music from their namesake’s ‘Christmas Cantata’ and more.

Leading the way, but not as imposing as Bach, were two shorter works: Dieterich Buxtehude’s (1637-1707) “In Dulci Jublilo” (With sweet rejoicing), and “In Nativitatem Domini Canticum” (Song of the Lord’s Birth) by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). Both were conducted by the choir’s assistant conductor, Emma Mildred Riggle.

Within BCC choral ranks, Mr. Nelson finds soloists who can fill the bill of quality performance. Charpentier’s quite charming In Nativitatem, one of his Latin motets for sacred services exhibiting both French and Italian baroque styles, was convincingly enhanced by four soloists: soprano Josephine Petersen, alto Megan Mattoon, tenor David Foley and bass John Vergin all showed off fine musicianship and vocal training.

Ms. Riggle masterfully enlivened this motet with well chosen tempi and strong leadership. This was a delicate, lyrical counterpoint to the other works on the program. Riggle is on a positive arc as conductor and leader, displaying clarity and authority, demonstrated particularly in the Charpentier.

Dieterich Buxtehude could be described as the stepping stone between Heinrich Schutz, the father of German choral music, and the great JSB himself. The final and most important post in the Danish-German composer’s career was in the imperial free city of Lubeck in Northern Germany, where the likes of composers Telemann, Handel and Bach came to visit him and hear him play the organ at Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church). Having wide latitude for his compositional creativity, Buxtehude initiated a program of Evening Music (Abendmusik) offered the five Sundays before Christmas each year in Lubeck. One of the cantatas that emerged from this was In dulci Jubilo led in this concert by Ms. Riggle.

Here, tempi were sometimes ponderous, and the sound occasionally blustery. This is not to recommend adopting the philosophy of “faster is better,” but all music must come alive, through choices of tempo, sonic variety and phrasing. Placing too much weight on any one beat throughout, for example, will yield false word accents. We can consider the opinion of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the father of historically informed performance practice with early music, about the music of Bach: “it’s all a dance.” The entire Buxtehude is in triple time. Thus, an analogy might be a graceful, light on its feet waltz, as opposed to its plodding ancestor, the landler, in which the tradition was heavy stomping and hopping.

The structure of the Buxtehude also presents a challenge in that it alternates blocked phrases of choral line and ritornello (orchestra) for several repetitions. All the more reason to reveal the dance within.

The Christmas Oratorio (“Weinachtsoratorium”) is a harvest from six pre-existing Bach cantatas, meant to celebrate the six feast days around the Christmas season. Bach was famously a selfie-klepto, stealing from himself (and sometimes earlier composers), so throughout this oratorio, we hear Bach echoing his own musical chronology.

Ralph Nelson led Bach Cantata Choir’s holiday concert.

Mr. Nelson chose to perform the first three of these cantatas, respectively dramatizing the Christian story of Jesus’s birth, annunciation and adoration. Originally performed on Christmas Day 1734 and the two succeeding days, these reflect an air of celebration and general thankfulness. The total form shares many of the genres from Bach’s Passions: aria; ariosos (a more elaborate form of recitative with some orchestral accompaniment); chorales; and choruses. The preeminent secco (dry – using stark chords played only by keyboard and cello) recitatives are those of the Evangelist (narrator), who keeps drama and music moving forward. Byron Wright was brilliant and flexible in this role.

The arias were sung by veteran Portland vocalists Hannah Penn, Jacob Herbert, Leslie Green, and Vakarė Petroliūnaitė. All were exceptional. Mr. Herbert has arrived at an apex of tonal brilliance in his baritone voice; Ms. Penn brings a vibrant and flexible tone with rich hues throughout her range; Mr. Green was a model of fioratura, dispatching his multiple runs in the aria “Frohe Hirten eilt” (Joyful shepherds hasten) like champagne bubbles spurting from a newly opened bottle. Ms. Petroliūnaitė sang like an angel in the duet “Herr dein Mitlied, dein Erbarmen (Lord Thy mercy and forgiveness) with Mr. Herbert, each disporting graceful vocal lines.

Flattering all of these voices was a stalwart orchestra. The continuo, anchored by organist John Vergin, was steady on. Concertmaster Mary Rowell and oboe/oboe d’amore-ist Paul Pitkin and a triumphant trio of trumpeters John Kim, Taylor Long, and Scott Winks shone beautifully without overwhelming the singers or other players. Bach was enamored of the oboe d’amore during this compositional period; the Christmas Oratorio features the archaic wind instrument in sixteen solos (a few doubled by violin) while the flutists are not featured but for a few shimmering moments. And while the strings are integral, there are few real solos for them except for one of the most precious of Bach moments, the alto aria, “Schleise, mein Herze” (“Keep thou, my heart now within thy faith always”). Mary Rowell masterfully and expressively maneuvered through leaps, while cellist Dale Tolliver emoted from below. It’s called an alto aria; it is really an alto, violin, and cello trio.

A quartet of oboes is a rarity but Bach had an aural “vision” of sheep in a pasture, leaping and playing and shepherds, uh, shepherding. A lighter, perhaps less muttony sound would have been ideal from the four modern-day winds. But this lovely interlude did introduce the third cantata beautifully.

The concert ended at the two hour and 20 minute mark (including intermission). Perhaps offering only the Charpentier as an “amuse bouche” to the Christmas Oratorio would have satisfied the appetite of the hungriest audience member. And yet, there was a certain continuity to the Buxtehude statement “In Dulci Jubilo” (In Sweet Rejoicing) and the opening line of the final chorale in cantata III “rejoice and sing.” And this choir does seem to rejoice so in singing.

That joy may help explain the choir’s recent progress. The singers and director Nelson seem to see what they do as a gift, to themselves and to the community. There is an element of raising musical literacy, evident in Mr. Nelson’s amusing pre-concert mini-lectures. BCC provides an opportunity for Portland audiences to hear a cornucopia of baroque literature, a vanishing commodity these days. (When’s the last time you heard a full baroque oratorio in Portland? Sorry, you’re not allowed to count the manifold Messiahs that come out of the musical woodwork every year.) The annual baroque holiday concert ticket sales enable the remaining concerts to be free. This is a rarity. And the community shows full appreciation with their loyal attendance.

The choir will travel to Germany this coming June, with concerts planned in Leipzig, Köthen and Eisenach Their final concerts of the season, also at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, will take place in February, March and May.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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