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Capping its second full season of operations and concerts, Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its second Charlotte Bach Festival, and my first impressions tell me that this festival will be slightly larger than last year's impressive inaugural. They've widened the reach of the eight-day event so it stretches from Asheville to Chapel Hill, and they've expanded the concert lineup with a ninth offering, breaking out of their churches-only mold with "Bach at the Brauhaus" at Free Range Brewing. Largely because they're performing the St. Matthew Passion – and printing the entire text for festival-goers – the handsome festival program booklet has also expanded, including 57% more advertising pages. Most exciting at the Festival Opening Celebration in Myers Park, it was obvious that awareness of the festival had grown. Last year, I could describe attendance at Christ Church Charlotte as excellent for a weakly publicized new event. This year, they were so near capacity that you have to wonder whether Charlotte Bach will be turning away customers next year or turning to a new location for their big events.
Since Johann Sebastian Bach was tasked with producing new work like clockwork – and keeping it aligned with his church's calendar – it shouldn't surprise us that, in some ways, festival artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett's programming choices are formulaic. Last year and this year, for example, one of the visiting artist recitals will be by an organist – churches do come in handy at a Bach festival! – and the other will be performed by a principal from Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, last year cellist Guy Fishman,* and this year concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. Similarly, both last year's and this year's opening celebrations, performed by the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, have consisted of two vocal works and one of Bach's orchestral suites.
Beginning with the Magnificat, Bach's setting for the Virgin Mary's prayer to God (Luke 1:46-55), Jarrett was able to regale his audience immediately with the NC Baroque Orchestra's heavy artillery – timpanist Jonathan Hess and three trumpeters playing valveless Baroque instruments. Yet they only needed to rock the hall for about a minute before the chorus entered and began swelling toward their full volume, adding thunder to thunder. Intermediate sections reminded us of the Cantata Choir's collective power from time to time but also spotlighted seven of the ensemble's 17 members in solo, duet, and trio performances. Sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and MaryRuth Lown immediately set the bar high in their arias, baritone Jason Steigerwalt was both nimble and mellow with easy low notes in his "Quia fecit mihi magna," and the blend between Elizabeth Eschen and Patrick Muehleise was exquisite in their alto-tenor duet. In brief intervals between the arias or in obbligato behind the soloists, there was admirable work from a solo oboe and a pair of flutes. Midway, trumpets and timpani returned for the mighty "Fecit potentiam" chorus and immediately exited, returning once more for a triumphal "Gloria Patri." Glorious it truly was, outshining the lauded Magnificat recording conducted by Richard Hickox.
In Season Two, we were offered Orchestral Suite No. 2, sensibly following the Suite No. 1 that launched last year's Charlotte Bach Festival. It's a much quieter and more intimate piece, giving flutist Colin St. Martin the opportunity to come forward and sparkle. The slightly slow tempo Jarrett chose for the long Ouverture movement certainly made me yearn for the speed-up that was telegraphed. When the tempo did quicken, it was still a half-step slow, but there was a nice gradual gain in momentum until the slow-fast cycle repeated. St. Martin produced charming staccatos in the lovely little Rondeau and renewed the appeal of the familiar melodies that crop up later in the Polonaise and the concluding Badinerie movements.
The Cantata presented after intermission was shorter than either of the pieces that preceded it, but there was a handy "To be continued..." label attached to Cantata 130 by Jarrett in his introductory remarks. This would be the first of three Cantatas to be performed at the 2019 festival written by Bach for the Feast of St. Michael. The other two – Cantata 19, "Es erhub sich ein Streit" ("There arose a war"), and Cantata 149, "Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg" ("The voice of joy and redemption") – would be performed separately at midday "Bach Experience" concerts during the week, fortified with analytic lectures from Jarrett. So 130, "Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir" ("Lord God, we all praise you"), was a gateway to those lengthier celebrations of St. Michael's victory over Satan, alias "Der alte Drache" ("the ancient dragon").
Slightly stunted compared with the other two Michaelmas cantatas, six movements rather than seven, Cantata 130 didn't lack for vocal and instrumental muscle, as Jarrett brought back all the choristers who had departed for the Suite and all three trumpeters – Josh Cohen, Steve Marquardt, and Perry Sutton. But again, comparing this performance to recordings conducted by Helmuth Rilling, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, I found the excellence of the choir and the vocalists to be most astonishing. With all the instrumental big guns firing instantly, the musical praise seemed to begin before the vocalists joined in on the opening chorus, and Eschen was no less luminous in her mezzo-soprano recit than she had been in her previous Magnificat duet. Any suspicion that all of the Cantata Choir's top vocalists had already been deployed was dispelled when baritone Charles Wesley Evans, preceded and accompanied by trumpet heraldry and timpani thunder, sang his powerful "Ancient Dragon" aria, neither eclipsed nor strained by the brass and drums. Jarrett also had the luxury of spotlighting additional singers in duet, for soprano Emily Shusdock and tenor David Kurtenbach harmonized deliciously on their recitative. Kurtenbach lingered for the prayerful aria that followed, a soft lyrical movement that saw him in duet with flutist Rodrigo Tarraza before the stately, anthemic final chorus.
One last item to pass along after attending Monday's "Bach Experience": Aisslinn Nosky, slated to deliver her solo violin concert on Wednesday, will linger at the festival through its conclusion, serving as concertmaster at the upcoming performances of the St. Matthew Passion.