Review: Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios
By Perry Tannenbaum
June 18, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Founded in 2017 with the North Carolina Baroque Festival, Bach Akademie Charlotte presented a precocious and ambitious first edition of the Charlotte Bach Festival in June 2018. Unmistakably modeled after the renowned Oregon Bach Festival, where Akademie artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett has frequently performed, Charlotte Bach figured to flourish in a soil that is rich in churches and choirs. The second Festival in 2019, bookended by Orchestral Suite No. 2 and the St. Matthew Passion, was even more bodacious than the first, which had opened with the Orchestral Suite No. 1 and closed with the Mass in B Minor. These two acts would be tough to follow at a third Festival, but until COVID struck in 2020, nobody knew how tough. Barely three weeks after I had seen the Festival schedule for June 2020, the pandemic cancellations began, eventually including Charlotte Bach III. By the time Charlotte Bach 2022 opened at Myers Park Presbyterian Church on June 11, the Festival had been in hibernation longer than it had been live, soldiering on online with abbreviated lineups in a virtual format.
During the hiatus, there was some notable reorganizing and rebranding within Charlotte Bach, but instead of suffering any attrition, the overall lineup for 2022 was actually more robust than the one announced for 2020 – with numerous additions, one very logical substitution, and no sacrifices. Instead of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 on opening night, Aisslinn Nosky played Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 – the same piece she had played and conducted in her Charlotte Symphony debut in January 2018.
The performance highlighted Nosky’s installation as the concertmaster of Bach Akademie Charlotte Orchestra. After announcing Nosky’s new role at the Festival (she had been a guest artist at the 2019 fest), Jarrett announced that Guy Fishman (a guest artist at the inaugural 2018 Festival) had signed on as principal cellist with the BA|Charlotte Orchestra. Not to be overshadowed, Fishman reappeared in a midweek “Bach in a New Light” concert, playing a Domenico Gabrielli morsel and Bach’s first two Cello Suites, accompanied by laser light projections from Salty Robot Productions.
Duplicating its opening and closing concerts, respectively, in Asheville and Winston-Salem, Charlotte Bach also widened its reach within the Queen City, proving that the McColl Center could be an edgy and funky enough site for the Fishman light show and that the spectacularly renovated Sandra Levine Theater, on the Queens University campus, was acoustically attuned to the splendors of Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios. Maybe there was some doubt whether the Easter and Ascension pairing at the Levine sufficiently upstaged the Violin Concerto and Dixit Dominus combo at Myers Park Presbyterian to definitively rise to the loftiness of the Festival’s finale placement and Masterwork billing. Whatever the reason, Handel’s Zadok the Priest was added to the already ample triple-trumpet heft of the Bach oratorios. Thank you!
Even before the BA|Charlotte Festival Choir stood for the first time, the trumpet triumvirate – Steven Marquardt, Perry Sutton, and Josh Cohen – held forth brilliantly in the Easter Oratorio Sinfonia, gracefully counterbalanced by oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Margaret Owens. Tension and anticipation before the choral outbreak of resurrection jubilation were further sustained as Burgess lingered as the sole solo voice, playing a lovely intervening Adagio. Joined by timpanist Jonathan Hess, the trumpet trio then returned at full throttle, heralding the Chorus and its hearty “Kommt, ellet und laufet” (Come, hasten and run) invitation. Tenor Steven Soph and bass Jason Steigerwalt, so imposing as the Evangelist and Jesus (Steigerwalt singing the baritone role) in the Festival’s three midweek lecture-concerts devoted to Bach’s St. John Passion, then sang a duet, clarifying that it is the resurrection that has gladdened their hearts.
Appropriately enough, newly rising talent took over most of the arias and recitative that followed, demonstrating the prestige of gaining a spot with the Festival Choir as Vocal Fellows. Bass Chris Talbot as John, in the first Recitative section that followed the huge chorale, and soprano Addy Sterrett as Mary Jacobi, subsequently drew their own solos. But tenor David Morales also reappeared as Peter in the Recitative following Sterrett’s lovely “Selle deine Spezereien” (O Soul, your spices) Aria, by far the longest Aria of the night, and alto Eliana Mei-Xing Barwinski also returned as Mary Magdalene.
Yet it was charming to see Festival Choir regulars also in the spotlight, Soph backed by Owens and Burgess (both switching to recorders) and alto Sylvia Leith accompanied by Owens on oboe d’amore. Marquardt, Sutton, and Cohen returned to the stage with their elongated plunger-less trumpets to join the Festival Choir once again, which had found something fresh to celebrate in their finale after much grieving, yearning, and sighing from the vocal and instrumental soloists during their absence: Jesus had conquered Hell and the Devil, and Heaven’s gates were opening for the Lion of Judah.
Alternately known as Coronation Anthem No. 1, Zadok the Priest also creates tension and anticipation with a churning crescendo of strings that could remind you of Philip Glass minimalism if you didn’t see the thunder and lightning of chorus and brass standing onstage, readying for action. In an instant, understatement flipped to overstatement when the storm broke loose at the Levine, for neither Zadok nor the prophet Nathan is exactly an Old Testament headliner of the magnitude of Solomon, held at bay until the end of the opening line.
Handel certainly packs plenty of into the brassy choral payload, less than five minutes long, that pounces upon us after the relatively quiet preamble that gurgles along for more than 25% of the composition. Bach might have dispatched a solo vocalist to narrate the prose of Zadok and Nathan anointing Solomon as King of Israel, saving the exclamations – “God save the King!” “Amen!” “Alleluia!” and “May the King live for ever!” – for the Choir. No such middle ground applied to this Handel masterwork, and Jarrett, the brass, and the Festival Choir all reveled in firing away at us in unrelenting fortissimo. Collectively, they were thrilling.
Shorter than the Easter Oratorio, Bach’s Ascension Oratorio was sensibly paired with Zadok after intermission, showcasing the Festival Choir more intensively. The more compacted – and more symmetrical – scheme has its choral segments evenly spaced at the beginning, middle, and end of the oratorio, rather than merely as two massive bookends, while discarding the two instrumental preambles that ushered in the Easter story. Instead of the same vocalists we had seen before, four more permanent members of the Festival Choir handled the two Arias and six Recitatives evenly distributed around the midpoint chorale. More satisfying than this architectural symmetry, of course, was the sustained excellence of the singing, underscoring the awesome depth and quality of the ensemble.
Three of the four featured Ascension vocalists have been with Bach Akademie since the beginning, except for tenor Gene Stenger, the Evangelist, who signed up in 2019. The Evangelist role gave Stenger the lion’s share of the scriptural verses in this Oratorio’s libretto, stitched together from Luke, Mark, and Acts, with bass Edmund Milly, no less dignified, standing in for the Two Men in White Apparel who promise the Apostles that Jesus will return from Heaven “in like manner” as they have just seen him go. Besides that key passage, Milly drew a more poignant Recitative earlier in the narrative, “Ach, Jesu, ist dein Abschied schon so nah?” (Ah, Jesus, is Thy parting now so near?)
Bach’s plum Arias here both went to women, alto Kim Leeds poignantly following Milly’s recit with “Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” (Ah stay, my dearest life) and following him again in Part 2, after the angelic promise, with another lovely plaint, the “Ach ja! So komme bald zurück” (Ah yes! So come back soon again) recitative. Stegner’s final recitative, concluding the narrative with a brief mashup of Acts 1:12 and Luke 24:52, sufficed to flip the mood from gloom to joy, giving soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh the opportunity to rejoice greatly in the final Aria of the evening, vying with Sterrett and Soph and Leeds for the mightiest vocal conquest of the night, surpassing them only in charisma.
Enhancing the dramatic contrast between sorrow and celebration, Haigh could draw upon the ample instrumental support of three wind players playing contrapuntally behind her – oboist Burgess, and two flutists, Colin St-Martin and Rodrigo Tarrazza – the first musicians to rise up during the entire Ascension. Switching places with co-principal Marquardt, Cohen played lead trumpet in the latter oratorio. All three brass players returned from the wings for the final Chorus, an earthshaking fantasia set to a stanza from a Gottfried Wilhelm Sacer hymn, summoning the Christian savior to reappear.
He may not have quite reigned for ever and ever yet, but Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) seemed to have retained much of his power 272 years after his death, thanks in part to better playing and singing at the Charlotte Bach Festival than any performance this imperishable genius may have actually heard in his lifetime. Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) has also had a pretty fine run, as the two baroque greats, born less than a month apart, close in on their 340th birthdays. It was good to have the elder Handel take his place in the Charlotte Bach programming for 2022, helping the to enhance our delight this year and to sharpen our eagerness for Festivals to come.