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The Bach Cantata Series at Duke University Chapel has been an extraordinary boon to Triangle music lovers. The chapel's long reverberation period has been a drawback, especially for the chamber cantatas that were performed on this season's first two concerts, but a tripling of performers and changes in how they are staged helped assuage acoustic impediments for this concert.
Director Philip Cave led the Duke Bach Ensemble consisting of thirteen singers (four sopranos and three each of altos, tenors, and basses), the strings of the Mallarmé Chamber Players (two violins, viola, cello, and violone), and members of the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble (three sackbuts and one cornett). Joseph Fala played the continuo chamber organ. Singers from within the chorus were treated as soloists or duos while the whole group were most often stationed on antiphonal risers on the left and right behind the instrumentalists seated in the crossing between the east and west transepts. In some cases, a small third choir was stationed in the chancel between the risers.
Cave described this concert as a "slice of Advent music," serving as a sampler of nearly thirteen composers covering from the late 15th through the early 18th centuries. His imaginative use of his forces and his fluid employment of them in the space was apparent from the concert's opening. High voices came ethereally from within the mausoleum before moving to the first riser. Lower voices were on a second riser on the right. Sackbuts and cornett magisterially sounded from the back of the chancel.
Both vocal soloists and choristers delivered the extensive German texts and one Latin setting with outstanding diction, clear intonation, and well-supported voices. The HIP strings and wind instrumentalists played with superb intonation and period style. The glorious sound of the latter was just icing on this holiday treat!
The first half of the concert focused on Martin Luther's hymn "Nun komm, der Heiden Heilland" (Now come, Saviour of the gentiles), his adaptation of the Latin hymn "Veni redemptor gentium," attributed to St. Ambrose. Cave distributed all eight verses in widely varied harmonization's by seven composers: Michael Praetorius, Melchior Vulpius, Balthasar Resinarius, Johann Hermann Schein, Johann Gottfried Walther (2), Johannes Eccard, and Johann Sebastian Bach. It was interesting to hear the effect of location on the projection of a tenor soloist. His voice rang out much stronger from the top of the first riser than when he sang beside the conductor on the floor. The shifting kaleidoscope of number of singers, staging, and varying accompaniments was a constant pleasure.
Next came "Canzona Decima Nona a Doi Chori," a purely instrumental piece by Giovanni Picchi (1571-1643). It received an engaging and lively interpretation.
"Machet die Tore weit" (Lift up your heads, you gates) by Gottfried August Homilius (1714-85) came next in a setting using a lighter accompaniment, cello, violone, and chamber organ with two antiphonal choirs. The first choir consisted of tenors and sopranos while the second choir had altos and basses. The setting of Psalm 24:7-10 found Choir I taking the first and third stanzas while Choir II responded with the second and fourth stanzas. The clarity of the texts was simply superb.
Good old "Nun Komm" came next again in three larger settings. The first, a motet in eight parts (SSWV 12) by Samuel Scheidt, featured soprano and tenor trading phrases of the chorale melody with instrumental accompaniment. The setting by Heinrich Schütz, SWV 301, utilizes two pairs of sopranos and basses supported by cello, violone, and chamber organ as continuo. The influence of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice was clear throughout the substantial antiphonal setting by Michael Praetorius. The elaborate use of four choirs, each with different instrumental accompaniments, was most impressive with polished performances from everyone.
The next scheduled selection, "Canzona VIII a 8" by Giovanni Gabrieli, would have fitted the Venetian theme, but illness forced a substitution. The first of the six Schübler Chorales of J. S. Bach, Chorale Prelude: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," the ever popular "Sleepers Awake" was the welcome replacement. Bach choose to transcribe the fourth movement of Cantata 140: "Zion hört die Wächter singen" (Zion hears the watchman sing). Leaving his chamber organ, Fala ascended to the console of Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Organ (Flentrop 1976). His interpretation featured HIP selection of registration and confident, seamless flowing melodic lines.
An economical setting of the motet "Lieber Herr Gott, wekke uns auf" (Dearest Lord God, waken us now) by Johann Christoph Bach (1735-82) came next. Two choirs exchange a text featuring word painting supported by cello, violone, and chamber organ continuo.
A very impressive rarity came next that made stirring use of three choirs and full instrumental forces. Venetian influence was clear in the twelve-part setting of Magnificat by Polish composer Mikołaj Zieleński (c.1550-c.1615). Cave's excellent program notes describe the performers arranged "in three choirs by pitch; the first choir is the highest, performed by cornett and solo voices, the middle choir is accompanied by strings, and the lowest by sackbuts."
The formal program ended with two advent settings, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" by Praetorius and J. S. Bach's chorale (verse 4) from Cantata 140. Praetorius' setting opened with an instrumental introduction and made full use of two choirs and both strings and brass. Bach uses two choirs, strings, and chamber organ.
To end the concert, Cave invited the large audience to use the inserted music sheet and to sing along in either German or English! This was a delightful wide ranging survey of Advent music expertly performed.
Edited/corrected 12/5/19 in response to reader input.