Tag Archives: Charles Wesley Evans

A Well-Proportioned “Passion” Caps the Charlotte Bach Fest

Review: St. Matthew Passion at the Charlotte Bach Festival

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The most dramatic moment at the second annual Charlotte Bach Festival may have been a moment of silence – at the climax of the St. Matthew Passion, after Bach’s Evangelist had declared that Jesus had died. Festival conductor and artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett maintained that silence longer than any I could remember on a recording or at a live performance, including Jarrett’s own with the Charlotte Symphony in November 2013.

After this loaded interlude at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, like the world itself coming to a halt, the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir was exquisitely empathetic and hushed singing, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden, So scheide nicht von me” (When I depart one day, do not depart from me). The chilling desolation of this reaction was all the more poignant because of the power that the 25 singers in the Cantata Choir had poured forth just minutes earlier in mocking and taunting the crucified Jesus as he was dying on the cross.

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There had also been power aplenty from the soloists, as we were quickly reminded after the prayerful choral lament, when tenor Stephen Soph as the Evangelist continued Matthew’s narrative – with the rending of the Holy Temple, the earthquake, the opening of graves, and the rising of the dead upon Jesus’ death. No less powerful as Jesus, baritone Jason Steigerwalt’s most memorable singing had come in his Part I recitatives, at the Last Supper and during the subsequent episodes leading up to his arrest on the first day of Passover. Of course, his last words, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?” had a special plaintiveness.

With Jarrett’s past and present connections to the Oregon Bach Festival, the Handel and Haydn Society, Seraphic Fire, and Charlotte Symphony, the high quality of the Cantata Choir – and the instrumental and vocal soloists he can lure to Charlotte – is not at all surprising, even if their power and dynamic range can sometimes come as a shock. All 22 of the core members were accorded extended bios in the rear of the festival program booklet. Additional space was carved out for the four Vocal Fellows who fortified the Choir during the Passion and figured prominently in the midweek, midday Bach Experience performances of two Michaelmas cantatas, Nos. 19 and 149.

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Since both the core singers and fellows were chosen by Jarrett from nationwide talent pools, it wasn’t surprising that soloists singing the Passion arias were on the same level as those who had sung for Jarrett in 2013. What astonished me more was what soloists from a reduced core Choir had achieved the previous Saturday night when they performed Bach’s Magnificat at the festival’s Opening Celebration. Overall, performances at the more intimate Christ Church by sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and MaryRuth Lown, mezzos Elizabeth Eschen and Kim Leeds, tenors Patrick Muehleise and Gene Stenger, and baritone Steigerwalt had equaled or surpassed those I’ve heard on recordings conducted by Helmuth Rilling, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki.

There were additional soloists awaiting their turns at the Celebration when another Michaelmas cantata, No. 130, followed the Orchestral Suite No. 2. These included the sweet-voiced tenor David Kurtenbach, who would sing the recitative and aria at the Matthew Passion during the High Priests’ interrogation of Jesus, and – more impressive yet – bass-baritone Charles Wesley Evans, who would take the stage at the Passion in the wake of Judas’ remorse and suicide, transforming after the touching “Gebt mir meinem Jesum weider!” (Give me my Jesus back!) into the role of Pontius Pilate.

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Other superb choristers stepped forth at Myers Park Presbyterian who had not soloed during the Opening Celebration. Most conspicuous was countertenor Jay Carter, whose recitatives and arias suffused the most intense episodes of Part II with sublimity and pathos, during the scourging of Jesus and at Golgatha, the site of the crucifixion. Edmund Milly, who hadn’t sung at the Celebration, didn’t get his first solos until Simon of Cyrene carried the holy cross, lavishing his rich bass-baritone on “Komm, sübes Kreuz” (Come, sweet Cross), with a viola da gamba obbligato from Gail Schroeder. We had no sampling of soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh’s silvery lyricism until Jesus was brought before Pilate and she sang her recitative and the “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Savior wants to die) aria, with traverso flutist Colin St. Martin playing the intro and obbligato. St. Martin’s work at the Celebration in the Orchestral Suite No. 2 had been even more substantial and impressive.

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Five other members of the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra played obbligatos with Cantata vocalists, none more ballyhooed than concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, who made gorgeous music together with Leeds in the mezzo’s “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy) aria. Following in the footsteps of cellist Guy Fishman, Nosky had been the second Handel and Haydn Society principal in successive years to perform at Charlotte Bach’s Visiting Artist Recital Series. In partnership with the American Guild of Organists, the festival presented Isabelle Demers as their other recitalist. The big improvement here was a change from the Uptown location at St. Peter’s Episcopal, where Bálint Karosi had performed, to Myers Park United Methodist. Not only did the chocolatey organ sound marvelous, it was at the front of the sanctuary, where we could actually see Demers play without having to turn around awkwardly in our seats.

Keeping with the precedent set by last year’s recitalists, both Demers and Nosky expanded the scope of the festival beyond all-Bach. Demers branched out into organ works by Alkan and Widor, and Nosky brought us a Fantaisie for Solo Violin by Telemann as well as two sections from Stand Still, a piece written for her by Michael Oesterle. Funkier by far, Charlotte Symphony trombonist Tom Burge inaugurated a new Bach at the Brauhaus event in the back room of Free Range Brewing on a wee stage that seemed, with its string of carnival bulbs and crimson curtains, best suited for magic acts or stand-up comics. Between sips of the pub’s brew – and banter from the audience – Burge played a Bach transcription, selections from Bone Kill by Michael Davis, and after slyly fishing out a euphonium from behind the curtain, Paganini’s most famous Caprice.

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Nosky’s appearance was another kind of departure from last year, extended so that she could linger and gently whip the NC Baroque’s strings into sharper shape for the Passion – and to help in spreading the festival to Chapel Hill, where the masterwork was given at University United Methodist before its closing night performance in Charlotte. The were fewer hired guns brought in from afar to fortify NC Baroque than came to sing with the Cantata Choir, and the Passion ensemble was a lean-and-mean 32, including Nosky and organist Nicolas Haigh.

The anemic organ Haigh contended with was the only fault I found with the Baroque Orchestra, not their SlimFast number. Playing on period instruments, the company places a greater premium on authenticity – and precision – than on raw power, which is fine with me. When added muscle was needed, Steven Marquardt and Josh Cohen shared leadership of a corps of valveless baroque trumpets that bloomed gloriously in the Magnificat to launch the festival and in three Michaelmas cantatas afterwards. And just before the halfway mark at the Passion, a 10-voice children’s choir from Charlotte Latin School briefly appeared.

Never too big, and never too small. When the Cantata Choir and the Orchestra reached the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen neider” (We sit down with tears) of the Passion, there was soothing lullaby aspect to the music that overshadowed the usual community lamentation we hear from larger groups. Tuning in to the “rest gently” motif later in this chorus, Jarrett likely had that restful aim in mind when he hushed his forces once again. That was also fine with me. Very fine.

Charlotte Bach Festival Kicks Off Year Two in Astonishing Style

Review: Charlotte Bach Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Capping its second full season of operations and concerts, Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its second Charlotte Bach Festival, and my first impressions tell me that this festival will be slightly larger than last year’s impressive inaugural. They’ve widened the reach of the eight-day event so that it stretches from Asheville to Chapel Hill, and they’ve expanded the concert lineup with a ninth offering, breaking out of their churches-only mold with “Bach at the Brauhaus” at Free Range Brewing.

Largely because they’re performing the St. Matthew Passion – and printing the entire text for festivalgoers – the handsome festival program booklet has also expanded, including 57% more advertising pages. Most exciting at the Festival Opening Celebration in Myers Park, it was obvious that awareness of the festival had grown. Last year, I could describe attendance at Christ Church Charlotte as excellent for a weakly publicized new event. This year, they were so near capacity that you have to wonder whether Charlotte Bach will be turning away customers next year or turning to a new location for their big events.

Since Johann Sebastian Bach was tasked with producing new work like clockwork – and keeping it aligned with his church’s calendar – it shouldn’t surprise us that, in some ways, festival artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett’s programming choices are formulaic. Last year and this year, for example, one of the visiting artist recitals will be by an organist – churches do come in handy at a Bach festival! – and the other will be performed by a principal from Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, last year cellist Guy Fishman and this year concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. Similarly, both last year’s and this year’s Opening Celebrations, performed by the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, have consisted of two vocal works and one of Bach’s Orchestral Suites.

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Beginning with the Magnificat, Bach’s setting for the Virgin Mary’s prayer to God (Luke 1:46-55), Jarrett was able to regale his audience immediately with the Baroque Orchestra’s heavy artillery – timpanist Jonathan Hess and three trumpeters playing valveless baroque instruments. Yet they only needed to rock the hall for about a minute before the chorus entered and began swelling toward their full volume, adding thunder to thunder. Intermediate sections reminded us of the Cantata Choir’s collective power from time to time but also spotlighted seven of the ensemble’s 17 members in solo, duet, and trio performances.

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Sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and MaryRuth Lown immediately set the bar high in their arias, baritone Jason Stegerwalt was both nimble and mellow with easy low notes in his “Quia fecit mihi magna,” and the blend between Elizabeth Eschen and Patrick Muehleise was exquisite in their alto-tenor duet. In brief intervals between the arias or in obbligato behind the soloists, there was admirable work from a solo oboe and a pair of flutes. Midway, trumpets and timpani returned for the mighty “Fecit potentiam” chorus and immediately exited, returning once more for a triumphal “Gloria Patri.” Glorious it truly was, outshining the lauded Magnificat recording conducted by Richard Hickox.

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In Season Two, we were offered Orchestral Suite No. 2, sensibly following the Suite No. 1 that launched last year’s Charlotte Bach Festival. It’s a much quieter and more intimate piece, giving flutist Colin St. Martin the opportunity to come forward and sparkle. The slightly slow tempo Jarrett chose for the long Ouverture movement certainly made me yearn for the speed-up that was telegraphed. When the tempo did quicken, it was still a half-step slow, but there was a nice gradual gain in momentum until the slow-fast cycle repeated. St. Martin produced charming staccatos in the lovely little Rondeau and renewed the appeal of the familiar melodies that crop up later in the Polonaise and the concluding Badinerie movements.

The Cantata presented after intermission was shorter than either of the pieces that preceded it, but there was a handy “To be continued…” label attached to Cantata 130 by Jarrett in his introductory remarks. This would be the first of three Cantatas to be performed at the 2019 festival written by Bach for the Feast of St. Michael. The other two – Cantata 19, Es erhub sich ein Streit (“There arose a war”), and Cantata 149, Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg (“The voice of joy and redemption”) – would be performed separately at midday “Bach Experience” concerts during the week, fortified with analytic lectures from Jarrett. So 130, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (“Lord God, we all praise you”), was a gateway to those lengthier celebrations of St. Michael’s victory over Satan, alias “Der alte Drache” (“the ancient dragon”).

Slightly stunted compared with the other two Michaelmas cantatas, six movements rather than seven, Cantata 130 didn’t lack for vocal and instrumental muscle, as Jarrett brought back all the choristers who had departed for the Suite and all three trumpeters – Josh Cohen, Steve Marquardt, and Perry Sutton. But again, comparing this performance to recordings conducted by Helmuth Rilling, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, I found the excellence of the choir and the vocalists to be most astonishing. With all the instrumental big guns firing instantly, the musical praise seemed to begin before the vocalists joined in on the opening chorus, and Eschen was no less luminous in her mezzo-soprano recit than she had been in her previous Magnificat duet.

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Any suspicion that all of the Cantata Choir’s top vocalists had already been deployed was dispelled when baritone Charles Wesley Evans, preceded and accompanied by trumpet heraldry and timpani thunder, sang his powerful “Ancient Dragon” aria, neither eclipsed nor strained by the brass and drums. Jarrett also had the luxury of spotlighting additional singers in duet, for soprano Emily Shusdock and tenor David Kurtenbach harmonized deliciously on their recitative. Kurtenbach lingered for the prayerful aria that that followed, a soft lyrical movement that saw him in duet with flutist Rodrigo Tarraza before the stately, anthemic final chorus.

One last item to pass along after attending Monday’s “Bach Experience”: Aisslinn Nosky, slated to deliver her solo violin concert on Wednesday, will linger at the festival through its conclusion, serving as concertmaster at the upcoming performances of the St. Matthew Passion.