B-W Bach Festival: Concert 1 (April 15 at 4 pm)
by Daniel Hathaway
Though there were three preview events earlier in the week, the 79th Baldwin-Wallace Bach Festival really got down to business on Friday afternoon, April 15, with the first of four Festival Concerts, this one featuring the B-W Motet Choir and members of the Opera Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Dirk Garner in movements from a large work by Dietrich Buxtehude and three Festival soloists in a staged production of Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata conducted by Dwight Oltman.
Buxtehude, whom J.S. Bach greatly admired, wrote Membra Jesu Nostri to a 13th century devotional text either composed by Arnulf of Louvain or Bernard of Clairvaux, depending on what source you consult, dedicating the oratorio-like work in 1680 to the Swedish court conductor and organist Gustaf Düben. The poem meditates on seven parts of Jesus’ crucified body in seven motets set for solo voices alone or in combination, and chorus, accompanied by strings. Last season, the Festival presented the first two cantatas (Feet, Knees). We heard the last five on Friday afternoon (Hands, Side, Breast, Heart, Face).
The tone of the cantatas, as one might expect from the subject matter, is generally somber, and even for as much of a fan of Buxtehude as this writer is, five of them in a row can become a bit numbing in a concert situation. Rather like Haydn’s Seven Last Words, they fare better in church on an occasion when it’s appropriate to invoke a penitential mood and stay with it for a while.
For this performance, well-trained members of the Motet Choir took the solos and trio roles, performing them deftly and sensitively. We’d name names, but frankly got a bit confused as assignments seem to have been changed since the program went to press. Those who stood out were the ones who brought great character and personality to their roles. The chorus was excellent and finally got a chance in the concluding “Amen” to show what it could do in terms of brilliance, blend and focus. The orchestra, originally a family of viols but here the usual orchestral string section, played ritornelli and accompanied the chorus with accuracy and a nod to historical style. Continuo duties were ably handled by cellist Kent Collier and organist Nicole Keller.
If the first part of the afternoon was somber, the second was hilarious. Bach’s cantata about a coffee-crazed maiden, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, was imaginatively staged by Benjamin Wayne Smith (lately of Seattle Opera, since 2010 B-W’s first Director of Opera) using three of the Festival’s fine oratorio soloists in their alter egos as opera singers.
Soprano Suzie LeBlanc, a master of comic gestures and facial expressions, and a singer with remarkable clarity of voice, was perfect as the caffeinated Liesgen. Bass-baritone Daniel Lichti was wonderfully gruff as the Papa, Herr Schlendrian, and tenor Benjamin Buttefield supplied all the useful services of the butler while singing recitativo. All three, by the way, are Canadian, again raising the question of why our neighbors across the border seem to be so much funnier by nature (here, add the names of Saturday Night Live cast who also came from the North!)
Mr. Smith fleshed out Picander’s libretto and Bach’s orchestral preludes, ritornellos and postludes with fun and creative things for his small cast to do as Papa successively tried different ploys to get Liesgen to give up her coffee habit, finally bribing her with a husband (she eventually has a coffee on demand clause written into her marriage contract). One curious aspect of the production had the cast singing recitatives in English (in Mr. Lichti’s translations) and Bach’s arias in German, but the bilingual approach did no damage to Bach’s charming piece, itself probably premiered at Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig in 1734. The final trio, an ode to coffee, culminated with Liesgen’s betrothed delivering a four-pack of the brew to the singers (no corporate logos visible).
Mr. Oltmann and the Opera Cleveland Orchestra sounded festive and vibrant. Though the tempo was really quick, flutist Sean Gabriel didn’t drop a note of his complicated and triplet-laden obbligato in Liesgen’s aria.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 19, 2011
Click here for a printable version of this article