Tuesday, March 24, 2009

“An Exceptional Performance”

Late last night, I posted my own completely biased “review” of CONCORA’s recent all-Bach concert. (You can read it HERE.) It was interesting to see this morning that The Hartford Courant's reviewer praised essentially the same portions of the program that most moved me. Here’s the review, complete with the astounding mis-spelling in the headline (which appeared in the online version only; the print version was correct):


CONCORA, HSO Deliver An Intelligent Rendering Of BackBy JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant, March 24, 2009

Does listening to the music of Bach make you smarter? It does if you hear it live. But you were smart to begin with if you attended the annual all-Bach program by CONCORA and Hartford Symphony Orchestra musicians at the Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford Sunday.

In an exceptional performance conducted by Artistic Director Richard Coffey, CONCORA opened its program with Bach's motet “Fürchte dich nicht,” BWV 228. This work, scored for eight voices in a double choir, quickly developed into the kind of intensive pattern-making that makes hearing the music of Bach its own form of paradise. In one culminating moment, the eight voices telescoped into a single choir of four voices, and the altos, tenors and basses began an entrancing chromatic fugue on a biblical text. Meanwhile the sopranos overlaid lines from poem by Paul Gerhardt with hymn-like simplicity.

CONCORA was ablaze in the physicality of this music — the mechanics of singing within this complexity, the breathing, the care given to diction, the slight sway as each singer sought to connect with others in unconscious ways. These were all subtle signs of recognition that this music is special and that this choir has arrived at a clear understanding of how it works, of how it communicates.

Bach's Mass in G minor BWV 235 closed the first half. This “Missa Brevis” consists only of the Kyrie and Gloria texts from the standard mass, with the Gloria organized around a central collection of personal responses and observations sung by soloists. David Kennedy sang the bass aria “Gratias agimus tibi,” and tenor Jack Anthony Pott sang the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” with an attractive sense of liquid line that harmonized well with the oboe solo that surrounded it.

The aria “Domine Fili unigenite,” often sung by an alto, was performed by the countertenor Michael Linert. The ethereal, almost spooky high register singing perfected by Linert breaks differently than a female voice and has a stronger more poignant and cutting sound in what would be a low register of the female voice. It was particularly fascinating to hear, near the end of the aria, how the quality of voice changed as the music dipped through middle C to low B-flat, and Linert used his chest voice rather than his head voice.

After intermission we heard a tasteful and articulate performance of the Chorale-Fantasia for Organ “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott” BWV 720 played by Edward Clark. People from the audience were often glancing up toward the ceiling during the music; the sound seemed to come from the sky itself. Clark also received some celestial support. During the second section of his Chorale-Fantasia, sunlight suddenly flooded the church and lit both Clark and the organ for more than a minute before dimming as dramatically as it appeared.

The concert closed with Cantata BWV 80 “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God).” In a work with one of the most monumental opening movements ever written, it is still the chain of soloists who made this cantata seem human and personal. Soprano Christine Laird and bass Thomas F. Cooke, baritone Peter Perkins whose arioso was both somber and delicate, tenor Gabriel Löfvall and mezzo soprano Pamela Frigo Johnson were all effective and compelling soloists. Soprano Stacey S. Grimaldi was particularly memorable in the aria “Komm in mein Herzenhaus, (Enter my heart's house)” where her natural narrative sense drew us through the winding melodic turns and graces of this aria. Her voice became brighter as she quieted each closing phrase to bring this music, central in this cantata, to a close. [end of review]


I was sorry that the reviewer did not remark on the fine playing from The Hartford Symphony Orchestra — they really were outstanding, and of course this concert was a collaboration of the two ensembles. But his paragraph extolling Stacey's exquisite singing made up for it. And I second his endorsement of the beauty of the male alto voice. I was very glad that CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey assigned the alto aria in the Mass to Michael Linert, and was thrilled that Michael sang so well. We don't hear much of that sound around Hartford, and that's too bad.

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:

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 (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

Link to The Hartford Courant’s review:


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