Baldwin-Wallace Bach Festival: Concert 3
Bach's Matthew Passion (April 14)
By James Flood
The third concert at Baldwin-Wallace 80th annual Bach Festival consisted of Bach's three-hour epoch work, St. Matthew's Passion, featuring the Baldwin-Wallace Festival Choir and Festival Chamber Orchestra, and six distinguished American and Canadian soloists under the baton of festival director Dwight Oltman. the Baldwin-Wallace Festival Choir was nothing short of outstanding in bringing to life the story of Jesus' passion. The soloists were exceptional.
For a newcomer to Gamble Auditorium, its dry acoustics might take a few moments of auditory adjustment. But if there's any music that could use some dryness for the sake of clarity, it is a full-scale work of Bach where fast moving and intricate contrapuntal lines are easily blurred in an overly reverberant spaces.
The opening bars of the Festival Choir's entrance were immediately commanding. Under the apparently superior preparation of Dirk Garner, the Festival Choir had impeccable tuning, and were well-balanced. The lines were sung in powerful, yet straight tones, and very clear. The overall vocal production was beautiful and at times quite powerful, demonstrating both talent and quality training. The German diction was crisp, resolute, and...well, very German. Their singing of texts like “Verachte mich doch nicht!” (“Do not despise me!”) delighted unapologetically in the no-nonsense, yet passionate consonants so unique to the language.
In St. Matthew's Passion the choir is divided into Chorus I and Chorus II for antiphonal effect. In moments, the altos, and at other times the sopranos, within one side of each choir sang long lines on a single note. These moments were exceptionally united in pitch, dynamics and timbre, creating a powerful effect. The tenors voices were resonant with an appropriate “ring”. If one missed anything in the Festival Chorus, it was perhaps a greater bass presence. Though those singers made up the largest section, basses can have a lot to compete with against the higher registers. Additionally, The Festival Chorus had drama, an important element in a work depicting the passion of Christ.
The Festival Chamber Ensemble was made up of a combination of Baldwin-Wallace faculty, students and local professionals. There were some fine contributions from a number of individuals. In he alto aria, 'Ebarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy, my God”), passionately rendered by soloist Jennifer Lane, violinist Julian Ross played the accompanying violin solo beautifully. This movement evoked a particularly sympathetic effect, judging from the faces of some of the choristers and soloists.
Viola da gambist Lara Tuner nicely played a prominent and difficult part during the bass aria, “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (“Come, sweet cross). Violinist Wei-Shu Co also handled nicely the fast and energetic violin solo in the bass aria portraying the desperate and remorseful Judas “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder! (“Give me back my Jesus!”). Flutist George Pope was strong, basoonist George Sakakeeny supplied a solid underpinning, and Nicole Keller was impressive on the lovely continuo organ with the “on your toes” playing needed to accompany recitative. Essentially it appeared to be the older professionals who carried the orchestra, while the overall effect didn't quite match the excellence coming from the singers.
The soloists, brought in from other parts of the country as well as Canada, were outstanding. Soprano Sherazade Panthaki, playing an assortment a female parts, sang with a voice that was at once piercing and beautiful. Sherazade maintained a very forward placement in her voice throughout the German, and possessed full control over her vibrato, usually preferring a purely straight tone even in long forte lines. She would bring in vibrato purely for artistic purposes, usually in concluding a phrase.
Bass-baritone Daniel Lichti sang the part of Jesus at times with a full resonant bass voice, and at other times with an appropriately sweet and smooth sound. Young tenor Isaiah Bell, singing the part of Peter, sang with with passion and a powerfully resonant tenor voice, often employing a sort of “crack” in his voice for dramatic effect. Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams proved to be a crowd favorite, singing the part of Judas as well as various anonymous voices with a booming bass voice. Toward the end, Foster-Williams beautifully sang the very lovely aria, “Mache Dich, mein Herze, rein” (“My heart, purify yourself”). This aria is very tuneful, sounding almost like a pretty pop ballad in moments.
But the star for the evening among the soloists was lyrical tenor Lawrence Wiliford who sang the part of the evangelist, i.e. the narration of St. Matthew. This includes nothing but recitative — and a whole lot of it over the course of three hours. No arias with sweet tunes for the singer to hang onto, just awkward intervallic leaps through the whole evening, along with occasional key changes. Not an easy task! But Wiliford did so with complete mastery and undying commitment to bringing out the meaning of the text with all the powers of his voice and his natural acting skills. He remained fully in character for every moment he sang. Had I not known his origins (American-Canadian), I could have been persuaded that German was his native tongue. While he doesn't possess the operatic power of Isaiah Bell, his voice is powerful in its own way, going into a very high-range, where he seamlessly employs his falsetto with no loss of volume. His intonation among the awkward leaps was practically flawless.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 17, 2012
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