The two greatest composers of the high Baroque were represented on the Concert Singers of Cary's program at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Saturday evening, April 16. Both composers were born in Germany in the same year – 1685 – but their careers took them on widely different paths. Johann Sebastian Bach never traveled far from his birthplace and spent his life composing music for the church and a few patrons. Georg Frederic Handel traveled widely and ended up as a British subject. He composed mainly for the theater – operas, oratorios, incidental music and some works for the church. Though their styles are somewhat different, both composers left legacies of creative genius that provide generous pleasure to audiences today, nearly 300 years from their heyday.
St. Paul's Church was packed in a gratifying affirmation of the pleasure of great music meticulously prepared and lovingly performed. Bach's Magnificat in D, S.243, is one of those pieces that Bach reworked for different situations and occasions. The first version, in the key of E-flat, was performed at Vespers at the Church of St. Nicholas, Leipzig, on Christmas Day 1723. The more familiar D Major version appeared some five to eight years later. It is one of only a few works Bach wrote with a Latin text.
The Magnificat opens with a joyful chorus – the words of Mary at the news that her cousin Elizabeth was to give birth to John the Baptist and her own awareness that she was to bear the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit. Timpani, trumpets, the rest of the orchestra and an exuberant chorus proclaim "My soul magnifies the Lord." Bach magnificently lifts the spirits of his congregation (audience) with matchless music. The following eleven portions of Mary's canticle provide reflection, devotion, and praise. With solos by Kelly Stephenson, Elizabeth LaBelle, Robert Dey, Tim Sparks, Marjorie Smith, and Roberta Thomason, we were enticed into the event of incarnation as it was experienced in the heart of Mary. The piece ended with the chorus singing homage to God in the astonishing "Gloria Patri," some of Bach's most impressive music.
Handel's Dettingen Te Deum was composed in 1745 to celebrate the English victory over the French at the battle of Dettingen in June of that year. This triumphant work is also resplendent with the instruments of celebration in the Baroque era – timpani and trumpets. The opening section, "We Praise Thee, O God," was sung joyously and jubilantly by the fine chorus under the direction of Lawrence Speakman.
The Baroque Arts Project provided outstanding orchestral accompaniment on period instruments throughout the concert. The New-Bern-based ensemble included, for this performance, sixteen outstanding specialists, mainly from Virginia and North Carolina, playing either original 17th- and 18th-century instruments or replicas. Their demonstration of the instruments before the concert was both informative and entertaining, and their performance left this reviewer very impressed.*
The "Glorious Company of Apostles" section provided an opportunity for the men of the chorus, with their warm and rich sound, to shine splendidly. Amy Athavale, Smith, David Lindquist, and Dey did fine jobs with their solo and ensemble singing. There was an unanticipated pause in the program after "Thou Art the King of Glory" while the 8:45 Amtrack whistled its way through Cary. Speakman did his best not to draw attention to the diversion, but several times, as he raised his baton to begin the next section, the train whistle seemed even closer. The audience rather enjoyed it and took it good-naturedly. "We Therefore Pray Thee" was time for the women of the chorus to show their beautiful tones. The most familiar chorus of the Te Deum, "Day by Day," was winsomely done, and the closing chorus, "O Lord, In Thee Have I Trusted," brought this outstanding concert to a thrilling conclusion.
Much gratitude was expressed in the applause of the large audience – thanks to the Concert Singers of Cary, the soloists, the Baroque Arts Project, and Maestro Speakman for bringing Bach and Handel to life this night in Cary.
*The BAP strings were headed by violinist John Pruett and anchored by bassist Robbie Link, the wind group included Rebecca Troxler, flute; the trumpets were led by Barry Bauguess; and the organist was Linda Velto.