Marking the mid-point of their 2018-19 season, a select ensemble of sixteen singers from the Concert Singers of Cary, nine members of the Mallarmé Chamber Players, and guest soloists presented what conductor Nathan Leaf described as a “Discovery Concert,” wherein the audience heard not only music but also a lecture-demonstration of many facets of that music.

During the first half-hour of the evening, Leaf discussed the usual structure of a J.S. Bach cantata and the specific elements of Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (in English, usually called “Sleepers, wake!,” from a less-than-literal singing translation). Illustrating points of interest from each of the cantata’s seven movements by having the performers sing and play relevant excerpts, Leaf stressed Bach’s use of his libretti as inspiration for his music. (Indeed, a 20th century German writer’s phrase most succinctly describes this: “The word-bound music of Bach.”)

After the “discovery” portion of the concert, the cantata was performed in its entirety. Because it was written for the rarely-occurring 27th Sunday after Trinity, Wachet auf was likely performed only twice during Bach’s lifetime, in 1731 and in 1742. (It apparently was the first Bach cantata performed in America, by the Bethlehem Bach Choir on May 11, 1903.) The symmetrical score has the three stanzas of Philip Nicolai’s eponymous hymn at its beginning, center, and close, with two pairs of recitative/aria duet separating the stanzas. The performance was, as a whole, a delicate one. The well-balanced chorus sang lightly with the small instrumental ensemble, whose sound was dominated by double-reed chorus.

Likely for financial reasons, Bach’s intentions for two-on-a-part strings were not observed; we heard one-each violin I, violin II, viola, and ‘cello, the bass line augmented with a double bass and a bassoon. Cantata 140, in addition to Bach’s usual double string quartet ensemble, calls for a violino piccolo and a “corno” (da caccia, or “hunting horn”). Having the full complement of strings plus the additional instruments would have made for a better instrumental balance.

The opening movement’s rhythm, which has often been characterized as being in the French Overture style, depends on a figure of repeated dotted-eighth/sixteenth notes for its drive. When that figure slackens towards being triplets, which is what we heard, the rhythmic vitality is diminished. This is robust, “swing-the-beat!” music which would have benefitted from a more rigorous reading. Tempi were uniformly on the fast side, but not too much so except for the third movement 6/8 duet with its 32nd-note violin figurations, which Bach himself marked Adagio. It was more like a slow two-to-the-bar than a slow six-to-the-bar performance. It was, nevertheless, sinuously performed by violinist Leah Peroutka.

The central chorale, well-known because of its transcription by Bach for solo organ performance, was nicely sung by the four tenors, who came forward from their places with the chorus to sing their cantus firmus. The sixth-movement duet featured the beautiful solo-oboe playing of Bo Newsome, together with soprano Jeanne Fischer and baritone Marc Callahan. Both singers sang musically, with excellent German diction and with clear knowledge of Baroque style and ornamentation. Duet balance was excellent when the soprano part was in the upper register, but Fischer’s voice gave ground to Callahan’s when her part was in mid-range.

As always with Bach’s music, the bass line is the glue which cements the entire composition together as well as the line which rarely rests. ‘Cellist Nathan Leyland was a tower of strength, his clear and incisive tone providing the firm ground on which the ensemble was built. Joining him on the bass line, bassoonist Jessica Kunttu added the vibrancy of her double-reed sound to Leyland’s in perfect collaboration.

Because we rarely hear Bach’s cantatas as part of worship services, for which they were written (in Leipzig, the Sunday service was three hours long!), it is good to hear them in concert, by ensembles large or small, because of the beauty which they bring to our lives. Thanks to Leaf, the Concert Singers of Cary, and the Mallarmé Chamber Players for bringing this concept of a “Discovery Concert” to fruition.