Tag Archives: Gene Stenger

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.

Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert Includes Schütz and Amon Appetizers in a Cantata Feast

Review: Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Word has spread quickly about Bach Akademie Charlotte, their professional choir, and their polyphonic excellence. After their biggest splash last spring, the first annual Charlotte Bach Festival with its Oregon Bach aspirations, Akademie reconnected with their audience in the fall with “Priceless Treasure: Bach and the Motet Tradition” at Christ Church Charlotte. They rekindled the flame in a midwinter program, “Epiphany Cantatas,” last Saturday night at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in front of a robust turnout. It wasn’t all Bach or all cantatas, with motets by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Blasius Amon (ca. 1560-1590) sprinkled in between, and while it’s always so apt to hear Bach’s sacred cantatas in a church, these were sung and played nearly four Sundays after this year’s Feast of Epiphany.

Programmed and conducted by artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett, rest assured that the concert was aptly themed on the Epiphany celebration. While the BA Cantata Choir was reduced in size to 12, about half the maximum number that performed the B Minor Mass last June, there was nothing off-season about its membership, including choristers and soloists who flew in from as far north as New York and as far west as California. The 18-member North Carolina Baroque Orchestra also sported ace guests who had traveled from afar.

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The opening piece of the evening, “Fallt mit Danken, Fallt mit Leben” (“prostrate yourselves with thanks and praise”), was easily the most extended work of the evening – but not exactly a cantata. Actually, it was the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and, celebrating the circumcision of Jesus, performed on New Year’s Day. Do the math, recall the Jewish custom, and you’ll know why. There’s a pretty little orchestral prelude before the chorus enters that gave hornists Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulus a chance to shine, and once the Cantata Choir broke in, there were appealing spaces provided for oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Sung Lee. Burgess surpassed himself later on with his charming obbligato in the “Flösst, mein Feiland, Flösst dein Namen” (“does your name, my savior, instill”) aria where Molly Quinn floated her echoes, soprano to soprano, from upstage to Arwen Myers’s lead vocal up front.

As the Evangelist, tenor Bryon Grohman underscored the deeper significance of the circumcision, reminding us in “Und da Acht Tage” recitative that Jesus was given his name during that eighth-day ritual. Most impressive of the solo vocalists, starting with the length of his contribution, was bass baritone Jason Steigerwalt, who drew two recitatives during this piece. The first of these, “Immanuel, o Süsses Wort!” (“Emmanuel, oh sweet word!”), not only showed off Steigerwelt’s gorgeous lower range to better advantage, it pleasantly surprised us when three sopranos stood up to accompany him midway through.

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Instrumentally, some of the accompaniment for the soloists was spare, and while organist Nick Haigh played ably, a sweeter more robust instrument would have especially elevated the thinner recitatives. The Choir bolstered Steigerwalt’s second recitative, “Wohlan, dein Name Soll Allein” (“well then, your name alone”), effectively following the echo aria. Two violinists, Martha Perry and Janelle Davis, joined tenor Gene Stenger in his genial “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“I will live only to honor you”) aria, with additional backup from Haigh, Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, and Susan Yelanjian’s violone. The two horns returned with the orchestra and Choir for the closing Chorale, raising the devotional level to exuberance and joy while repeatedly reminding us – with six mentions of the name Jesus – of the meaning of the day.

Schutz’s Das ist je gewisslich wahr, based on the testimonial recorded in the opening chapter of 1 Timothy, immediately impressed with the awesome layered entrance of the Choir in verse 15 (New RSV): “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” Radically contrasting the slow opening bars of this motet with the speed-up that followed, Jarrett and his Cantata Choir dramatized the swiftness of Christ’s coming more emphatically than I’ve heard on any recording, with a light sense of liberation emanating from the women’s voices.

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Briefly showcased as the Evangelist in BWV 248.IV, Grohman made more indelible impressions in the tenor recitative and aria of Bach’s BWV 124 Cantata for January 7, Meinem Jesum, lass ich nicht (“I will not let go of my Jesus”). With Burgess excelling again in a lovely obbligato, Grohman was especially smooth in the aria, “Und wenn der herte Todesschlag” (“and when the cruel stroke of death”), notwithstanding its wide intervals. Burgess also sweetened the opening chorus, but they were all soon to be upstaged by the soprano-alto duet sung by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and countertenor Jay Carter, “Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, die Welt” (“withdraw swiftly, my heart, from the world”).

Jarrett boldly speculated that Amon’s three-minute motet, “Magi videntes stellam” (“the Magi, seeing the star”), was likely the composer’s Charlotte debut. Finding that the piece represents one-third of Amon’s output available on Spotify, I won’t dispute that assertion. “Rorat Coeli de super,” mixing solo and choral vocals, would be my choice as the best of the three Amon titles I’ve heard, but the Cantata Choir advocated beautifully for this moment of biblical revelation, and it was certainly a fitting bridge to Bach’s Epiphany Cantata, BWV 65, with its mentions of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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No surprise, then, that Jarrett drew our attention to the gloss on the iconic gifts that Stenger would sing in his tenor recitative, equating gold with faith, frankincense with prayer, and myrrh with patience. Jarrett also welcomed back the horn players in his introductory remarks, pointing out the extra tubing that Caudill and Niketopoulus would be adding to their valveless instruments, allowing them to play lower than before. Burgess and Lee were also asked to stand and display their curved oboes da caccia, the third different kind of oboe they would play during the evening, having slipped a pair of oboe d’amores past us earlier.

First performed on Epiphany Sunday in 1724 and one of Bach’s earliest Leipzig compositions, Sie warden aus Saba alle kommen is framed by the chorus as the fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy in 60:6, “all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Steigerwelt returned to give the baritone’s recitative explicating the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then he sang a very lovely aria, “Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht” (“gold from Ophir is too base”), exhorting Christians to offer their hearts instead of mere gold as their gifts to the newborn. With its own orchestral intro, the climactic tenor aria, “Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin” (‘take me to you as your own”), offered Stenger the chance to match Steigerwalt’s exploits, and he responded with his heartiest, most heartfelt singing of the evening.

The orchestral postlude to Stenger’s aria, peppered with pulsing horns and exchanges between a pair of recorders, was actually livelier than the closing chorale, which brought the concert to a calm, anthemic close. Altogether, this Epiphany concert was a memorable enough feast to leave us looking forward to the 2019 Charlotte Bach Festival, already scheduled for June 7-16, culminating with performances of the St. Matthew Passion on the final two nights.