Tuesday, March 24, 2009

“Almost too Beautiful to Bear”

On Sunday, March 22, CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists) presented its immensely popular annual all-Bach collaboration with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, with CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey on the podium. I am so grateful to have been part of the ensemble that performed this wonderful program. Of course, any performance with CONCORA is a red-letter day, but yesterday’s concert was extra special, in part because we performed one of Bach’s rarely-heard short masses, the Mass in G Minor (BWV 235). (You can read more about Bach’s “short masses” here and here.) It’s possible that this performance of the G Minor Mass by CONCORA was the first in this region in many years, if not the first altogether.

Though as a chorister I found deep joy and fulfillment in singing the choral portions of the program, the musical and emotional highlights of the afternoon for me were two of the solos. I loved these particular movements not just for the beautiful singing that each soloist brought to our ears, but for Bach's genius in crafting perfect settings.

First, in the duet (aria plus chorale) “Alles, was von Gott geboren/Mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan” that forms the second movement of Cantata 80, baritone Tom Cooke (filling in beautifully, on incredibly short notice, for a sick colleague) and soprano Christine Laird sang with verve, buoyancy, and commitment. Tom’s velvet tone and quick melismas were the perfect foil for Christine’s full-voiced declamation. The soloists were standing directly behind me, so I could not see their faces, but I could see delight reflected on many faces in the audience. I couldn’t help it – I grinned. I did try to suppress the grin, knowing that a politely interested smile was preferable, but that grin kept on coming. My toes tapped inside my shoes. I had to remind myself: Don’t sway, just stand still, don’t distract from the soloists who are standing right behind you!! But!! Bach wants us to experience delight and joy. Who can help but respond?

(My daughter, a former violist, commented on the fine ensemble playing in the string section of The Hartford Symphony Orchestra – “It sounded like one instrument” – particularly in the second movement, the duet/aria, which has a magnificent string accompaniment.)

Second, the oh-so-lovely aria for soprano that is the spiritual center of the cantata, “Komm in mein Herzenshaus,” was sung to perfection by Stacey Grimaldi. Surely this must have been the voice Bach had in mind: clear yet warm, velvety smooth yet ready to soar with strength and power. I saw serenity, wonder, and warmth reflected in the faces of our listeners. And when Stacey brought the last phrases down to a melting piano, I saw more than one person wiping away tears. I had to wait through the rest of the cantata before I could get off stage to have my own cry.

I had my favorite choral moments, too, of course. The entire motet Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228) was impeccably rendered; the second half in particular was almost too beautiful to bear. I was glad to be a soprano, singing the rising-to-heaven chorale fragments, floating over the fugue that was sung so tenderly by the altos, tenors, and basses. From my program notes: “Words can describe this passage but cannot convey its ecstasy, nor can they do justice to Bach’s inspired ingenuity in its creation.” You had to be there.

Though many might say that the architectural grandeur of the opening movement of the Cantata 80 was the most thrilling music on this program, it was the “Kyrie” of the Mass in G Minor that found a place in my heart. I wanted it to last forever.

POSTSCRIPT – The Hartford Courant published a review on Tuesday, March 24, 2009. You can read it, with my comments, HERE.

The complete program:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, the “Reformation Cantata”

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