Monday, April 27, 2009

Bach Cantata Choir ends season on triumphant note

Mendelssohn and Bach go together extremely well, and that shouldn’t be a surprise since Mendelssohn was the primary person who led the rediscovery of Bach’s music. Yet I haven’t attended many concerts in which their music was performed together until I heard the Bach Cantata Choir in its season finale on Sunday afternoon (April 26), which also featured the music of the early American composer William Billings. The choir, under the direction of Ralph Nelson, sang with excellent diction and blend in its performance before a large and appreciative audience at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church.

The concert got off to a dramatic start with all of the men singing very strongly in the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s “Richte mich, Gott” from Psalm 43. If that didn’t wake up the audience, nothing ever will. This piece didn’t have the light, frothy music that we usually associate with Mendelssohn. This was in your face Mendelssohn, and the choir expressed the words “Harra auf Gott” (“Hope in God) with beauty and boldness.

The chorus also gave a robust performance of Billings’ “Three Fuguing Tunes.” The three pieces sounded more like rounds than fugues, but their rugged-sounding four-part harmonies lifted everyone’s spirit. I also liked the way that the choir, in the last piece, “Be Glad Then America” built the Hallelujah from a contained, quiet sound to an exulting one that ended with the words “Praise the Lord.”

Bach’s Cantata #112 “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd) featured some fine singing from alto soloist Irene Weldon, bass Jacob William Herbert, soprano Nan Haemer, and tenor Byron Wright. Herbert’s singing of “Und ob ich wandelt im fenstern Tal” (“And though I wander in the dark valley”) stood out, in particular, because of its resonant and urgent tone. The horns in the chamber orchestra struggled with their notes at the beginning of the cantata, but the strings and woodwinds played well.

The choir also captured the lively and spirited sound of Bach Motet No. 2 Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (“The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness”). Bach wrote this piece for the funeral of the rector of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, and its upbeat atmosphere is due to the fact that Bach really liked that fellow. This motet for 4-part double choir has three sections, and the second seemed a little unsteady at times. Yet in the final section, the ensemble regained solid footing and resounded through the church.

For its last number, the chorus assembled itself around the perimeter of the sanctuary and gave a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), a motet for 4-part double choir. I loved the way that traveled from an ethereal quietness in the first part of the piece (the “Heiligh, Heilig, Heilig”) to the full-throttle, let’s bring the house down “Hosianna in der Höh” (“Hosanna in the highest”) at the end. It was thrilling to hear and a real crowd pleaser as well.

With this concert, the choir performed its 26th Bach cantata. As Nelson noted in his remarks to the audience, the ensemble still has about 200 more cantatas to go. Let's hope that they include some more Mendelssohn and Billings in the future as well.

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