The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild hosted the Bach Aria Group, one of the longest-running U.S chamber music organizations, at Fletcher Opera Theater. The afternoon featured a unique group that focuses solely on the music of Bach along with a pre-concert program given by talented young musicians.

On this almost-spring afternoon, the lobby of the theater was filled with music from young musicians featured by RCMG. Two movements from Mozart’s Quartet in D, performed by Iris Chu, Kali Bate, Dominick Boyle, and Julia Illana, and coached by Lyda Cruden, were filled with light, airy sounds and excellent ensemble focus. Following this was the Scherzo from Vaughan Williams’ “Phantasy” Quintet. The players – Christine Wei, Malvika Nadkarni, Naveen Iqbal, Molly Merritt, and Hazel Ng, coached by David Wilson – captured the transparent and playful essence of the movement. The third ensemble was a wind quintet from Triangle Youth Philharmonic coached by Mary Boone. Ayla Goktan, Emmi Hodges, Rachel Knierim, Michael Elderkin, and Samuel Sparrow performed Trois Pièces Brèves by Ibert. This group added a wonderfully lighthearted approach to the brightly-colored chamber work.

The Bach Aria Group was founded in 1946 by musicologist and philanthropist William H. Scheide. The ensemble was created to foster an awareness and appreciation for the music of Bach and specifically the cantatas, which were at the time virtually unknown. As given in small chamber music settings, the music is challenging to instrumentalists and vocalists alike. The Bach Aria Group, recognized all over the United States, has always featured top-notch musicians. The current roster includes Beverly Hoch, soprano, David Britton, tenor, Daniel Phillips, violin, Timothy Eddy, cello, Tara Helen O’Connor, flute, and Yehudi Wyner, harpsichord. These six musicians have distinguished careers beyond this ensemble: the singers have performed and recorded widely with numerous major orchestras, the string players are half of the Orion Quartet, the flutist is perhaps best known for her work with Windscape, and the harpsichordist enjoys a parallel career as one of our country’s most admired composers. All have been nominated for many prestigious awards and serve as faculty members at outstanding music programs.

Bach wrote more than 200 cantatas, turning them out for a time on a weekly basis, for the church; these are known as sacred cantatas. His other cantatas are known as secular; these were written for anniversaries and entertainment for the nobility and society. Bach’s cantatas were written for various musical forces but were typically composed for vocal soloists, a four-part choir, and instrumental accompaniment. For this program the Bach Aria Group selected arias for soprano and tenor plus two duets, variously utilizing violin, flute, or cello, with continuo provided by cello and harpsichord. These musicians play modern instruments so the sounds they project are richer and fuller than is the norm for Bach today when original instruments are used.

With two exceptions, the 13 cantata excerpts that were on the program are considered sacred works. Among the highlights were the opening work, from Cantata 84 – “Ich esse mit Freuden,” for soprano, flute, violin, and continuo; this was beautifully projected by Hoch’s soprano voice and an echoing accompaniment. “Ermuntre dich: dein Heiland” (“Be lively now: thy Savior knocks”), sung by Britton, featured the tenor’s warm voice and excellent diction with the light and airy accompaniment of flute and continuo. Finishing the first half of the program was the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering, S.1079, featuring the instrumentalists of the group. The Musical Offering is one of the finest and most challenging pieces of chamber music from the Baroque era, and these musicians played each diverse character flawlessly.

“Bete aber auch dabei,” from Cantata 115, a beautiful, somber aria for soprano, flute, cello, and continuo, was performed with such passion and grace as to mirror a prayer of forgiveness. (Many of these cantatas offer praise to God, celebrate various occasions, or are professions of love.)

Arias from two secular cantatas were presented – “Phöebus eilt” was heard in the first half, and an aria for soprano, flute, and continuo from the lighthearted Coffee Cantata that delighted listeners in the second part. In this selection, Bach states, “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses…; and if anyone wants to court me, Ah! Just give me some coffee!” These works were lovely additions to the program.

The wonderfully talented Bach Aria Group’s knowledge of Bach and his music is superb, and the artists’ love for the performance of this music was consistently apparent. The ensemble work was consistently outstanding, with plenty of superior singing and some of the most refined instrumental work heard in these parts for a long, long time.