Unfamiliar works and an unfamiliar instrument are unexpected treasures
By Peter Alexander
There is a reason that the Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) uses a compass in its logo.
As demonstrated in their 2016–17 season-opening concert yesterday (Oct. 15), the BBF under music director Zachary Carrettin goes sailing out into Bach’s musical world, looking for new discoveries for players and audiences alike. And usually, like yesterday’s concert, they bring back unexpected treasures.
The performance, given in Boulder’s Adventist Church, was a repetition of a program given Friday evening in St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver. Titled “Concertos and Chorales Contextualized,” the program explored the many different ways Lutheran chorale tunes were arranged and used as the basis of larger works in the Baroque period (late 1500s to roughly 1750), and also how Bach’s concertos reflected compositional techniques that had been refined through settings of chorale tunes.
There was music on the program from the early Baroque, starting with a work by the truly obscure Bartholomeus Gesius (1562–1613), through the slightly better known Michael Praetorius (1571–1621), Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630), and Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654), and culminating with J.S. Bach (1685–1750). (See my preview of the concert here.)
Unfortunately, the space at the Boulder Adventist Church does not lend itself to clarity of the complex counterpoint you find in much Baroque music. This was evident with both the small orchestra assembled for two of J.S. Bach’s concertos, and the Boulder Bach Festival Chorus, which sang several works on the program.
The fault is not with the performers, who sang and played confidently. Carrettin led the program decisively, with a fine sense of style. Nevertheless, works performed from the front of the church were not always as clean as one would wish. Mid- to low-range sounds tended to get murky, and the bass lines were not always clear.
The sound is better when the music originates from the choir loft, at the back of the sanctuary. The choir sounded cleaner and clearer from the loft, and the organ, played splendidly by Christopher Holman, was transparent and at times sparkling.
In spite of any acoustic limitations, it was a thoroughly worthwhile and intriguing program, and may well have been more fully satisfying in the Denver venue.
Before the second half of the concert, Carrettin gave a brief talk on how the word Ach (the German equivalent of “Ahh!”) in Bach’s motet Jesu Meine Freude corresponds to similar exhalations in other cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. This both served to make the music, firmly grounded in north German Lutheran religious practice, more universal, and personified the festival’s motto “Across Time, Across Cultures”—the spirit that underlies the adventurous direction of today’s Boulder Bach Festival.
Three parts of the program were particularly pleasing. The anonymous setting of Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Oh God, look down from heaven) for organ was a delightful discovery, with rippling runs and a growing sense of pace. As throughout the concert, Holman’s playing brought the music energetically to life.
Of the two concertos, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 was the best instrumental selection on the concert. A string ensemble with violas at the top of the texture runs the risk of being murky throughout, but the smaller ensemble and careful work by the players mostly overcame the danger. The texture was generally transparent.
The playing by viola soloists Aniel Cabán and Tal McGee was particularly lovely in the slow movement, and the finale romped along with great energy.
A word about the cello da spalla (shoulder cello) that Carrettin introduced in this work. He and Renee Hemsing Patten played two interior parts (originally written for viola de gamba) on this unusual and somewhat awkward looking instrument. When heard individually, they projected a solid, clean string tone, and they obviously filled their parts well. To really judge the instruments, it would be necessary to hear one in a solo role—which Carrettin has planned for the BBF concert Dec. 8 in Boulder and Dec. 9 in Longmont.
The final set of the concert comprised three works for the Christmas season, by Michael Praetorius, J.S. Bach, and Gesius. Each work was pleasing, starting with music sung by a chamber choir, and ending with the Gesius sung in surround sound with a rank of singers in each aisle. This was good program planning: ending with the fullest and clearest choral sound of the concert, and yet another fine discovery brought back from the larger musical world.