Friday, April 4, 2014

CONCORA and Bach: “Performed … with intensity”

No, this is not a review of CONCORA's stunning performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor that was offered to a sell-out crowd on March 30 ... The Hartford Courant chose to ignore this important musical and community event. (Apparently they had to reserve ink and pixels for an expose of “worst prom dresses ever” that was on the front page of their website the other day.)

Rather, I was mortified to discover the other day that I never got around to posting this review of CONCORA’s 2012 Bach concert. Here it is; it’s worth re-reading.


Concert Review: CONCORA, HSO Involve Audience In Annual Bach Event
By JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant, March 27, 2012.

The annual Bach concert given by CONCORA at the Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford on Sunday began with a rehearsal given by its conductor Richard Coffey. Was he rehearsing the members of the Hartford Symphony who were performing the orchestral music in this event? No. The chorus? The soloists? Nope.

It was the audience.

Along with the season brochure and the separate booklet of texts, translations and excellent program notes, [ahem!] attendees were given a single sheet of music as they entered the church. It was the chorale that closes the Bach cantata “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” BWV 1, that would be the first work on the afternoon's program.

“There are those who believe,” explained Coffey, “that in J. S. Bach's time that the congregation sang along. I am one of those who have the tendency to believe that, so we are going to have you sing along today.” In German. He said that if we couldn't manage the language that we could still sing on neutral syllables. Then CONCORA sang the chorale once and we practiced it the second time around.

There was a hidden wisdom in this idea. During the opening movement the same chorale was sung in pure tones by the sopranos high above the complexities of the chorale fantasia that took place in the vocal parts and in the orchestra below it. The chorale the congregation practiced was like a roadmap that allowed them to hear and immediately understand the larger structure of the most complicated music in the work.

The choir sang with a gentle and subtle dancing motion during much of the first movement. It seemed an unconscious way of sharing the joyous physicality in this music. The violins were set up on either side of the conductor so that the concerto-like concertante parts sounded in stereo.

When it came time to close the work the audience joined in the final chorale. Participation makes one hear the music differently. Most people sang the German well enough, and someone behind me sang the alto part accurately. Bach attracts a musical audience.

Harpsichord soloist Margreet Francis joined the orchestra as soloist in Bach's Concerto in D Minor BWV 1052. Francis is a wonderful musician who was playing with inventive and interesting musical ideas. Unfortunately the orchestra was too big for the space given the amount of sound it was possible to produce on that particular harpsichord, and a good deal of the detail was covered. It might have made sense to reduce the orchestra to three first violins, three seconds, and one viola, cello and bass. The dialogic scoring of the third movement had windows through which to hear the soloist and gave the opportunity to hear some of the intricacies of the solo part.

After intermission the Magnificat in D BWV 243. CONCORA was performed with such intensity that even silences seemed supercharged. The resonances after the great “Omnes generations,” and just before the adagio in the “Fecit potentiam,” sounded like glowing infinity.

The soloists carried the audience through this work, and like the soloists in the earlier cantata, each brought a distinctive musicality and personality into the telling of these diverse stories. Tenor Jeffrey Soto, who sang expressive solos in both works, was able to articulate impressive control of long lines. Mezzo-soprano Salli-Jo Borden sang wonderfully accurate figuration and was able to bring her voice gradually lower and lower without losing clarity until she landed a low G-sharp.

Tenor Mark Child, soprano Stacey Grimaldi, bass Andrew Klein, mezzo-soprano Pamela Johnson, soprano Christine Laird, bass Anthony DeDominicis, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Mellon, and tenor Jack Pott also sang solos.

The Magnificat ended where it began – a musical circle, in which the same music served two different texts. It closed an event that was itself like a musical circle – a concerto enclosed by two sacred works.

[It’s not really a review of the choral performance, is it? Not one word about the choral singing. I can’t even find a good quote to use for the title of this post! “Performed … with intensity” could be wonderful – or terrible! Well, at least he liked the program notes.]

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