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Word has spread quickly about Bach Akademie Charlotte, their professional choir, and their polyphonic excellence. After their big splash last spring, the first annual Charlotte Bach Festival, with its Oregon Bach aspirations, Akademie reconnected with their audience in the fall with "Priceless Treasure: Bach and the Motet Tradition" at Christ Church Charlotte. They then rekindled the flame in a midwinter program, "Epiphany Cantatas," at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, in front of a robust turnout.
It wasn't all Bach or all cantatas, with motets by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Blasius Amon (ca. 1560-90) sprinkled in between, and while it's always so apt to hear Bach's sacred cantatas in a church, these were sung and played nearly four Sundays after this year's Feast of the Epiphany. It was programmed and conducted by artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett, so rest assured that the concert was aptly themed on the Epiphany celebration. While the BA Cantata Choir was reduced in size to 12, about half the maximum number that performed the B minor Mass last June, there was nothing off-season about its membership, including choristers and soloists who flew in from as far north as New York and as far west as California. The 18-member North Carolina Baroque Orchestra also sported ace guests who had traveled from afar.
The opening piece of the evening, Fallt mit Danken, Fallt mit Loben ("Prostrate yourselves with thanks and praise"), was easily the most extended work of the evening – but not exactly a cantata. Actually, it is the fourth part of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and, celebrating the circumcision of Jesus, performed on New Year's Day. Do the math, recall the Jewish custom, and you'll know why.
There's a pretty little orchestral prelude before the chorus enters that gave hornists Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulus a chance to shine, and once the Cantata Choir broke in, there were appealing spaces provided for oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Sung Lee. Burgess surpassed himself later on with his charming obbligato in the "Flösst, mein Heiland, Flösst dein Namen" ("Does your name, my savior, instill") aria where Molly Quinn floated her echoes, soprano to soprano, from upstage, to Arwen Myers' lead vocal up front. As the Evangelist, tenor Bryon Grohman underscored the deeper significance of the circumcision, reminding us in "Und da acht Tage" recitative that Jesus was given his name during that eighth-day ritual. Most impressive of the solo vocalists, starting with the length of his contribution, was bass baritone Jason Steigerwalt, who drew two recitatives during this piece. The first of these, "Immanuel, o süsses Wort!," not only showed off Steigerwalt's gorgeous lower range to better advantage, but it also pleasantly surprised us when three sopranos stood up to accompany him midway through.
Instrumentally, some of the accompaniment for the soloists was spare, and while organist Nick Haigh played ably, a sweeter more robust instrument would have especially elevated the thinner recitatives. The choir bolstered Steigerwalt's second recitative, "Wohlan, dein Name soll allein" ("Well then, your name alone"), effectively following the echo aria. Violinists Martha Perry and Janelle Davis joined tenor Gene Stenger in his genial "Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben" ("I will live only to honor you") aria, with additional backup from Haigh, Simon Martyn-Ellis' theorbo, and Susan Yelanjian's violone. The two horns returned with the orchestra and choir for the closing chorale, raising the devotional level to exuberance and joy while repeatedly reminding us – with six mentions of the name Jesus – of the meaning of the day.
Schutz's Das ist je gewisslich wahr, based on the testimonial recorded in the opening chapter of 1 Timothy, immediately impressed with the awesome layered entrance of the choir in Verse 15 (New RSV): "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost." Radically contrasting the slow opening bars of this motet with the speed-up that followed, Jarrett and his Cantata Choir dramatized the swiftness of Christ's coming more emphatically than I've heard on any recording, with a light sense of liberation emanating from the women's voices.
Briefly showcased as the Evangelist in S.248.IV, Grohman made more indelible impressions in the tenor recitative and aria of Bach's Cantata 124, for January 7, Meinen Jesum, lass ich nicht ("I will not let go of my Jesus"). With Burgess excelling again in a lovely obbligato, Grohman was especially smooth in the aria, "Und wenn der harte Todesschlag" ("And when the cruel stroke of death"), notwithstanding its wide intervals. Burgess also sweetened the opening chorus, but they were all soon to be upstaged by the soprano-alto duet sung by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and countertenor Jay Carter, "Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, der Welt" ("Withdraw swiftly, my heart, from the world").
Jarrett boldly speculated that Amon's three-minute motet, "Magi videntes stellam" ("The Magi, seeing the star"), was likely the composer's Charlotte debut. Finding that the piece represents one-third of Amon's output available on Spotify, I won't dispute that assertion. "Rorate Coeli desuper," mixing solo and choral vocals, would be my choice as the best of the three Amon titles I've heard, but the Cantata Choir advocated beautifully for this moment of biblical revelation, and it was certainly a fitting bridge to Bach's Epiphany Cantata 65, with its mentions of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. No surprise, then, that Jarrett drew our attention to the gloss on the iconic gifts that Stenger would sing in his tenor recitative, equating gold with faith, frankincense with prayer, and myrrh with patience. Jarrett also welcomed back the horn players in his introductory remarks, pointing out the extra tubing that Caudill and Niketopoulus would be adding to their valveless instruments, allowing them to play lower than before. Burgess and Lee were also asked to stand and display their curved oboes da caccia, the third different kind of oboe they played during the evening, having slipped a pair of oboe d'amores past us earlier. First performed on Epiphany Sunday in 1724 and one of Bach's earliest Leipzig compositions, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen is framed by the chorus as the fulfillment of Isiah's prophecy in 60:6, "All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord." Steigerwelt returned to give the baritone's recitative explicating the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then he sang a very lovely aria, "Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht" ("Gold from Ophir is too base"), exhorting Christians to offer their hearts instead of mere gold as their gifts to the newborn. With its own orchestral intro, the climactic tenor aria, "Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin" ("Take me to you as your own"), offered Stenger the chance to match Steigerwalt's exploits, and he responded with his heartiest, most heartfelt singing of the evening. The orchestral postlude to Stenger's aria, peppered with pulsing horns and exchanges between a pair of recorders, was actually livelier than the closing chorale, which brought the concert to a calm, anthemic close. Altogether, this Epiphany concert was a memorable enough feast to leave us looking forward to the 2019 Charlotte Bach Festival, already scheduled for June 7-16, culminating with performances of the St. Matthew Passion on the final two nights.