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The Cary Choral Artists, along with the Chatham Baroque Trio and the East Carolina University Early Music Ensemble, all using period instruments, joined their considerable talents on Saturday, October 8, in the acoustically lively sanctuary of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cary. It was one of the finest presentations in my memory of some of the most well known and beloved music of J. S. Bach.
The Choral Artists were Elizabeth LaBelle, soprano, Kathy Hopkins, mezzo-soprano, John Cashwell, tenor, and Lawrence Speakman, baritone. More about the instrumental ensembles later. They began with Bach's Cantata 59, Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten (He who loves me will keep my commandments). This is an earlier version of Cantata 74, composed for Whit Sunday (the First Day of Pentecost), possibly when Bach was in Cöthen or perhaps as early as 1716, in Weimar. The work is richly orchestrated and was performed with violins, viola da gamba, violone, theorbo, portative organ, and two trumpets. It consists of only four movements – Duetto, Recitativo, Chorale, and Aria. The opening duet, sung by soprano and baritone, was quite pleasant and somewhat festive, with the trumpets doubling the melody at times. It was a little difficult for me to hear the vocalists at first, but the balance became better as they proceeded. The aria, sung by Cashwell was very nice indeed, with solo violin, viola da gamba and continuo playing a lovely melody around the solo. The chorale, which Bach put third, was switched and sung last on this occasion. Though not one of the highlight cantatas – Bach made better use of the material in the later version – hearing it done with period instruments and in a one-voice-to-a-part performance provided a special chamber-like intimate pleasure.
The Chatham Baroque Trio, based in Pittsburgh, consists of violinist Julie Adrejeski, who demonstrates an indisputable mastery of her instrument and of Baroque music interpretation, Patricia Halvorsen, who plays the viola da gamba with sensitive warmth and consummate skill, and Scott Pauley, whose instruments are the theorbo and baroque guitar, both played with understanding of the instruments as well as the music of the Baroque period.
Only two members of the ECU Early Music Ensemble were listed in the program – John O'Brien, who performed the continuo, and Tom Huener, trumpet. The others were Leslie Connor, violin, Szeewon Lee, viola, Julie Willis, trumpet, and Rachel Gragson, harpsichord. Augmenting the ensemble were guest artists Tracy Mortimore, violone, and Barry Bauguess, trumpet.
The Sonata VII of Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), a generation or two earlier than J.S. Bach, was performed with two violins, viola da gamba, violone, harpsichord, and theorbo and baroque guitar, played by Pauley. The artists shared a little about each of these instruments. They were all reproductions of instruments made in that period or earlier or known to have been used at that time. The violins appear very similar to the modern violin but have extra structure so that the sheep gut strings will produce more sound. The bows are also several inches shorter. The viola da gamba and the violone both have six strings and frets as well as other features differing from their modern counterparts, the cello and double bass. The theorbo is, more or less, a bass lute with a very long neck and two sets of strings. The bass strings extend to the top head and the conventional strings are tuned at a second head about midway up the neck. It produces charming renaissance-like sounds, though they were still in use into the 18th century.
The ensemble performed three of the rich treasures known almost universally to those who love the music of the Cantor of Leipzig – the Duetto from Cantata 78 ("We hasten with failing but diligent paces (or footsteps)"), the tenor chorale from Cantata 140 ("Zion hears the watchman singing"), and the most familiar of all; "Jesus shall remain my gladness" – usually referred to as "Jesu, Joy of man's desiring." All three were done with knowing musicianship and affection. Labelle and Hopkins seemed to be absolutely having a ball with the Duetto. One cannot help but wonder what the reaction must have been in Thomaskirche on that Sunday when it was first performed!
Following the intermission, Chatham Baroque performed a Sonata in G by Bach and a Chaconne by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1621-80) (who played a key role in the development of the suite and the sonata). Both pieces featured violin, viola da gamba, theorbo, and harpsichord.
The program concluded with portions of Cantata 29, Wir danken dir, Gott wir danken dir (We give thee thanks, God, we give thee thanks). We heard the Sinfonia, the second-movement chorus, the third-movement aria, and the final chorale. The Sinfonia, a rearrangement of the E major partita for solo violin (S.1006), was superbly played by the Chatham Baroque ensemble and members of the ECU Early Music Ensemble. Bach must have felt very satisfied with the chorus since he used it twice, with modifications, in the Mass in B minor – as the Gratias agimus tibi and the closing Dona nobis pacem. It is indeed a majestic and masterful accomplishment, considered by some to be the most moving three minutes in all of music. The tenor aria was also magical; it is one of those pieces wherein Bach spins a violin obbligato with the continuo instruments that seems as though heaven has come down to touch the human being and combined with it perfectly. The closing chorale – superbly exuberant with three trumpets – ended the concert with a solid and warm feeling that was just right.
This was one fine presentation of some of the most delightful music of the monumental J.S. Bach and other Baroque luminaries. The period instruments, the talented and skilled artists, and the one-to-a-part singing provided an intimate and memorable evening.
A footnote from a distinguished Bach interpreter and scholar: "Bach's cantatas are the focal point of his œuvre. And once you've played or recorded them for years on end, it becomes evident just how amazing it was that one man could have been so rich, original and full of inspiration when composing. Every cantata and every aria becomes a passionate adventure where the question of routine or repetition never arises. No other composer pushed strict counterpoint to such limits or romanticism to such expressive heights. No other composer uses such rich and complex instrumentation, nor gives as much importance to musical symbolism." – Nikolaus Harnoncourt