Before grade inflation took hold at universities, professors generally gave only a few “A”s and a few “F”s. Those outstanding and failing students were easy to identify; much harder was to decide exactly where to draw the line between B and C, and the line between C and D.
I felt this way as I pondered the May 6 performance of J.S. Bach’s Easter Oratorio (S.249). The four vocal soloists, 16-member chorus and 22-member chamber orchestra didn’t fail and they didn’t excel. But individual movements differed in quality and it was hard to assign a single overall grade to this performance, which was one of the “First Sunday Classical Chamber Music” series at St. Matthias Episcopal Church.
The Easter Oratorio has twelve movements, beginning with two instrumental movements (Sinfonia and Adagio) that lead into a Duet for bass and tenor with chorus, in which two apostles express joy at the resurrection. The next six movements alternate between recitatives and arias (for soprano, tenor and alto) while the final three movements are a bass recitative, a chorus and a final chorale.
What pleased me? The oratorio got off to a good start. Casey Coppenbarger on piccolo trumpet, Mary Thomas on bassoon and Arnold Brown on solo violin showed agility and nuanced playing in the Sinfonia. In the Adagio, oboist Pat Stone gave a good accounting. Soprano Ruth Johnson and Alto Corrine Minor delivered the recitative “Ah! May we soon behold” with excellent coordination, passing the vocal line back and forth with élan. Ms. Johnson’s aria “Sorrow shall no longer vex me” was the high point of the performance, delivered with assurance while a violin obbligato wove in and out of the vocal line.
What didn’t go so well? The string section came apart into indecision towards the end of the alto aria. In his aria, tenor Chris Corbin had problems with both tone and intonation in his upper register, not completely exonerated by his good phrasing and articulation. The best part of this aria was the fine performance by the three recorders.
For this performance, the audience was invited to join in the familiar chorale “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” a request made easier by the fact that the entire chorale was being sung in English. My personal taste is for Bach to be sung in the original German, so that text meshes with music just as Bach would have intended. He composed to the text – separable prefixes and all – and it just isn’t the same in translation.
Stephen Klein’s conducting demonstrated authority and comprehension. I felt that his strong hand kept the performance on track at times when some of the musicians were in danger of faltering. The concert (which opened with Benedetto Marcello’s “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God”) received a standing ovation from the large audience (over a hundred) but in my book it earned just a respectable “C.” But the line between “B” and “C” is sometimes hard to define.