Having heard many musical events at Duke Chapel, almost all of them of the highest caliber, this concert was a disappointment. Why? Not because of the performers; both singers and instrumentalists were excellent. But Duke Chapel, seating c.1800 people and highly reverberant, is NOT a good venue for a small chamber-music ensemble performing florid Baroque music. Had this same concert been given in the next-door Goodson Chapel in Duke’s Divinity School, or in the Nelson Music Room on Duke’s East Campus, it would have been excellent, but it didn’t work in the larger space.

The program: J.S. Bach’s Cantata Komm, du süsse Todesstunde, S.161; G.F. Handel’s tenor-solo recitative and aria for St. Cecelia’s day, “Look Down, Harmonious Saint,” HWV 124; and Bach’s Cantata Erwünschtes Freudenlicht, S184.

The singers numbered four. Only. Now, of course, Bach wrote many “solo cantatas,” for Sundays when his choir was on vacation; some of these include a closing chorale which would have been sung by a quartet of voices. But Cantatas 161 and 184 call for solo voices and chorus.

Four voices and an instrumental ensemble of six strings, two flutes, and a quiet chamber organ can produce excellent results, if they are performing in a space appropriate to their size. It did not help that they were positioned on the floor level of the nave, which means that they were singing/playing directly into the front rows of the audience, as well as invisible to most of the audience. Why not at least elevate them to the Choir level?

Perhaps the budget didn’t allow for the larger ensemble which would have been necessary to perform any of the several cantatas which Bach wrote for this day, September 29, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. A fixed-day festival, like Christmas Day, St. Michael’s Day rarely falls on a Sunday, so it would have been fitting to perform Cantatas 19, 50, 130, or 149.

Of the four singers, tenor James Reese had the heaviest load, with major arias in both Bach works and as the only singer in the Handel cantata. Well-remembered here for his superb singing of the Evangelist’s role in Bach’s St. John Passion, his musicality was a high point of the evening, as was his vocal dexterity in his upper range. Neither Reese nor the alto soloist, Tamsin Simmill, could be easily heard in their lower registers, which became lost in the acoustical forest. Nevertheless, Simmill’s higher notes carried well and beautifully, as did the lyric soprano voice of Andrea Edith Moore. Bass David Faircloth had less to sing, but made the most of his bravura extended duet with Moore which closed the “A” section of the concluding chorus of Cantata 184.

The Mallarmé instrumentalists were, as usual, excellent performers and interpreters. The whole ensemble was undergirded by violoneist Robbie Link, one of the Triangle area’s musical treasures. Flutists Roseen Giles and Alma Coefman are to be commended not only for their musical playing but also for their agility in playing twelve 32nd notes per measure in director Philip Cave‘s simply-too-fast (one-to-the-3/8-bar) second-movement duet in Cantata 184. String players Leah Peroutka, Andrew Bonner, Joey O’Donnell, Suzanne Rousso, and Stephanie Vial, along with organ continuo player Jacqueline Nappi, all provided fine musicianship and performances in their essentially-solo roles.

Pamela Dellal‘s English translations of the German cantata texts were literal and could not have been better. Dr. Cave’s program notes were helpfully illuminating.

In sum, an excellent concert which would have been successful in a more appropriate venue.