B-W Bach Festival: Concert 4 (April 16 at 8 pm)
by William Fazekas
This past Saturday evening witnessed the fourth and culminating concert of the 79th annual Bach festival at Baldwin-Wallace University. Each year, the festival centers around one of the great choral works by J. S. Bach: the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Mass in B-minor, in rather orderly rotation. This year saw the return of the Mass, which was conduced, like all the big works have been since 1975, by Festival Music Director Dwight Oltman. Such Monumentality and Tradition defy any real attempt at criticism.
As in years past, the Mass was sung by professional guest soloists and student chorus, accompanied by a mainly student orchestra, but spiked with professional and faculty-member instrumentalists in key roles. This is rather old-time Bach, performed on modern instruments, but not without some concessions to "historically-informed practices" (HIP!) in the ensemble size, and techniques and instruments used.
And how did it sound? In general, Mr. Oltman's tempi were on the quick side of conservative, which helped to give shape to a very massive work, and keep the evening moving along. In the first half, the Gloria followed the Kyrie without a moment's pause; and in the second, the opening movement of the Credo — a deliberately antiquated choral fugue which echoes the contrapuntal style of Palestrina — was performed in the quickest of cut times over a strongly marcato instrumental base-line. Mr. Oltman seemed to lead the chorus in the direction of strongly articulated phrases, which worked in some instances — the fugue in the opening Kyrie, for instance — and not in others: the opening of the Gloria, which came out more like "Glo-ho-ho-riiaa." Bach's vocal lines are notoriously unforgiving and unidiomatic for the voice, and at times the treble lines really exceeded the capabilities of a choir of twenty-year old soprani. But this is nit-picking — the bulk of the choral performance was beyond reproach: the magnificent swell in the "Gratias agimus tibi" of the Gloria; the careful attention to balance between lines in the "Crucifixus" of the Credo; and the joyous exuberance of the "Et resurrexit" which follows it. The obvious emotional involvement of the youthful choristers, who often threw themselves bodily into their singing, was truly a pleasure to watch.
Among the soloists, the soprano, Canadian Maritime singer Suzie LeBlanc, had a particularly delightful voice, marked by purity of tone and sensitivity to phrasing. Mezzo-soprano Juliana Gondel took both the Soprano II and Alto arias (they are differentiated in the score): her voice was perhaps a little better suited to the lower roles, although her duets with Ms. LeBlanc (the "Christe eleison" and "Et in unum Dominum" in the Credo) were models of balance and synchronized phrasing. Tenor Benjamin Butterfield sang with admirable lyricism in his duet with Ms. LeBlanc ("Domine Deus" in the Gloria, accompanied by obbligato flautist Sean Gabriel, performing on a wooden flute [HIP!]); unfortunately his only real aria, "Benedictus qui venit," was marred by an unforeseeable bout of coughing. In the B-minor, the Bass gets some of the best arias of all, which here were sung by Daniel Lichti: In "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" in the Gloria (accompanied by obbligato horn, here played by Jesse McCormick), he sang with a majesty which never crossed over into stentorian over-kill. His tone was more lyrical in "Et in Spiritum Sanctum" in the Credo, a lilting, melodious movement (to the least melodious text of Mass) accompanied by two oboe d'amores, played by Danna Sundet and Nathaniel Hubbard.
Attendees at the Bach Festival received a 120-page program booklet, covering all events throughout the weekend. Twenty-one of these were devoted to program notes to the B-minor Mass by Melvin Unger, who definitely favors a "symbolic" interpretation of Bach. The concert was performed in Gamble Auditorium to a full house. The B-minor concludes with a setting of "Dona nobis pacem" to the music of the choral fugue we've already heard at "Gratias agimus tibi"; near the end, the three trumpets enter, at first following the soprano line, then peeling upwards and away to bring the two-hour experience to a majestic, glorious conclusion. Immediately after which, the audience in Gamble Auditorium leapt to its feet in enthusiastic applause. Which is, of course, Tradition.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 20, 2011
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