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Boasting unmistakable DNA from the Oregon Bach Festival, at the podium and in its administrative offices, the new Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its first annual Charlotte Bach Festival in grand style, heralding national ambitions. The Festival Opening Celebration filled the chapel at Christ Church Charlotte with listeners eager to hear Bach's vocal music performed by a professional choir and to see Johann Sebastian's orchestral music played on authentic Baroque instruments. Conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, the combined forces of the Akademie's Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra obliged, filling the room with robust, cleanly sculpted sound.
All hands were on deck for Cantata 147, "Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben" including guest instrumentalists and vocalists. This centerpiece was preceded by the Orchestra Suite No. 1 in C, where we made the acquaintance of the fullest assembly of the NC Baroque Orchestra that I've ever seen. Concluding the concert, the "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" motet showcased the choir with light accompaniment from keyboardist Nicolas Haigh, violone player Sue Yelanjian, and NC Baroque executive director, cellist Barbara Krumdieck.
Jarrett is not merely a guest conductor at Oregon Bach Festival. He directs the Vocal Fellows Program there, and he is slated to deliver the lecture concerts of their Discovery Series this summer. Adam Romey, the new managing director, is the son of Kathy Romey, longtime assistant of OBF founder Helmuth Rilling; and the Bach Akademie president, Michael H. Trammell, has sung with Rilling at festival in Europe. In welcoming the audience and introducing the pieces, Jarrett reminded me of how Helmuth Rilling engaged his OBF audiences when he was artistic director there. He wasn't as sparing, concise, gnomic, or orotund as Charlotte Symphony's Christopher Warren-Green in making his remarks. There was a more relaxed informality and a gentle pedagogical touch. Jarrett didn't walk off into the wings between pieces and, since he had served as music director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte from 2004 to 2015, he could address us with a familiarity that must have taken Rilling years to achieve in Eugene, Oregon.
Intimacy between the audience and the musicians was sustained by the compact size of the ensembles – a mere 14 musicians taking the stage for the Orchestral Suite. Yet it did not take long for these members of NC Baroque to prove they could produce a roar in the opening Overture movement. Deceptively stately, for the oboes are doubling and quadrupling the pace with embellishments, the movement is far longer than any one of those that follow, with a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow structure that is most satisfying when the tempo contrasts are emphatic. Not only were the wind players on point – oboists Margaret Owens and Sung Lee backed by bassoonist Allen Hamrick – but the string players, led by concertmaster Martha Perry, were also up to the task, sounding effortless in the swift episodes. There was a nice balance later on in the Gavotte movements when strings and winds veered off in different directions and a delicious blend afterwards between the sections in the Minuets. The paired Bourées were also impressive, the strings showing their nimbleness in the fleet outer portions of this movement and, in the middle, Owens and Sung interweaving nicely over Hamrick's continuo.
Glorious was a better description of the Cantata 147 performance than merely impressive, for all of the forces at Jarrett's command were at their shining best – and the music includes the familiar "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," one of Bach's greatest hits, played twice to conclude each of its two parts. Here Josh Cohen made his first appearance with his valveless natural trumpet, launching the cantata with some stunning flourishes. Most of the vocal soloists were drawn from the Charlotte Cantata Choir, underscoring the fact that Jarrett has chosen the crème de la crème of Charlotte's plentiful choral talent. I was most delighted by Edmund Milly's renditions of the bass recitative ("Stubbornness can blind the mighty") and the bass aria in the penultimate song ("I shall sing of Jesus' miracles"), both ringing with power and authority, yet there was also considerable power from soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh in her aria ("Prepare now, O Jesus, the way").
With native talent of that caliber, the imports figured to be outstanding, and they were. Countertenor Charles Humphries was definitely a highlight in the alto aria ("Be not ashamed, O soul"), with a lovely obbligato from Owens over Hamrick's bassline. Tenor Patrick Muehleise had the earnest warmth that his aria demanded ("Help me, Jesus, to acknowledge Thee"), giving Krumdieck, who is so often relegated to continuo at local concerts, a chance to show her true mettle in the cello obbligato. Among the obbligatos, I don't think any outshone the paired oboes of Owens and Sung behind alto Elizabeth Eschen's sweet recitative ("The wondrous hand of God's omnipotence").
For sheer luminosity, however, nothing could compare with the live performances of the "Jesu" movements, numbers 6 ("I am blest to have Jesus") and 10 ("Jesus remains my joy"). The familiar melody is played by the orchestra, but it's the stately choral singing that elevates the music heavenward. Which melody is accompanying the other? Part of what nearly brought me to tears, besides the sheer beauty of the performance, were the realizations of how rarely such music is heard in a live concert and the foretaste of how much this new festival could mean to this community.
Jarrett delivered an additional foretaste in his introduction to this cantata, explaining its architecture, a glimpse of what he would be doing later in the Festival when he will clone his work at OBF's Discovery Series and bring it to Charlotte as The Bach Experience, exploring and then performing Cantatas 75 and 76 at Myers Park United Methodist Church in separate midday concerts.
Concluding the opening celebration, the Cantata Choir sounded relaxed and celebratory in their motet after scaling to the pinnacle of this concert. Jarrett didn't let up on the ensemble in the opening movement ("Sing a new song to the Lord"), calling for a slightly brisker tempo than I've usually heard, and I've certainly encountered more hushed and reverent accounts of the choruses in the middle movement. Yet there was still a definite éclat when the ensemble lit into the final "Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten" ("Praise the Lord in His works"), similar to the opening movement in its ecumenical return to the mother of us all, the Psalms of the Old Testament. Once more, Jarrett and the Choir accelerated with effortless speed, producing satisfying layers of melody, rich textures and counterpoint, building to what many people would call a cathedral of sound. Less pretentious folk could simply – and rightly – call this concert a grand opening.