Tag Archives: Steven Soph

Charlotte Bach Festival Ends in Splendor, With Roaring Trumpets and a Double Dose of Oratorios

Review: Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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!

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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.

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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.

2022~Charlotte Bach Fest-132Handel 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.

2022~Charlotte Bach Fest-115Three 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.

Originally published on 6/21 at CVNC.org

Bach Akademie’s “German Requiem” Concert Offers Heavenly Music at St. Alban’s

Review:  St. Matthew Passion performed brilliantly by Bach Akademie Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Once you’ve performed the St. Matthew Passion, as Bach Akademie Charlotte did so brilliantly in concluding its second annual Charlotte Bach Festival back on June 15, there is little left for this powerhouse company to prove as it begins its third season. In fact, their third season began in Charlotte and then Davidson after a weeklong residency at the University of Iowa, so they arrived at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church with their “Bach & the Class of ‘85” program well-rehearsed, glowing with the honor of their invitation to perform in Iowa City, and polished after performing the same program in concert twice in the previous three days.

Both born in 1685, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti fit the original program title best, Bach represented by his BWV 229 Motet, “Komm, Jesu, komm,” and Scarlatti contributing the more substantial Stabat Mater. Emphasizing the liturgical aspect of the concert, Music @ St. Alban’s rebranded it as “German Requiem,” for the program built up to Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, the first German requiem. The afternoon concert, led by Scott Allen Jarrett, began with Schütz’s less ambitious “Selig sind die Toten” and paid homage to Schütz’s teacher, Claudio Monteverdi, with “Audi coelum,” excerpted from Vespro della beata vergine.

Jarrett made no mention of the change, and seemed quite comfortable with it, revealing that the Scarlatti was chosen more to accommodate his traveling ensemble of 10 voices than to celebrate the composer’s birthdate. That was giving up the cause too easily, in my view, for Schütz was born in 1585 and there was no mention at all of the composers’ dates, either live or in our program booklets. It was unclear whether the vocalists from the BA|CH Cantata Choir – four sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses – were chosen on the basis of merit or availability, for the level of excellence among the 25 singers who had performed the Matthew Passion had been so high.

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There was certainly no diminution of excellence among the instrumentalists who accompanied them. Seattle-based theorbo player John Lenti distinguished himself immediately in the first two pieces, strumming vigorously over the continuo in the opening Schütz song, and giving the fiery closing section of the ensuing Stabat Mater a percussive edge. Nicolas Haigh had already distinguished himself at the organ throughout the Akademie’s brief history, and cellist Guy Fishman, a principal with the Handel & Haydn Society in Boston, was returning to the Charlotte area for the first time since his stellar solo concert at the first Charlotte Bach Festival last year.

The Cantata Choir had dipped into Schütz’s work back in February, when Jarrett showed his inclination to point up the dramatic contrast embedded in “Das ist je gewisslich wahr.” Once again, the Choir began by ravishing the harmonies of the opening lines of “Selig sind die Toten,” the four men in the ensemble answering and enriching melodies beautifully initiated by the six women. Lenti’s strumming was at the vanguard of the mood change when the choir shifted with a quickened pace from their consoling words, “Blessed are the dead which died in the Lord,” to the more vigorous and affirmative “their works do follow after them.”

A more dramatic shift, from German to Latin and from the promise of heavenly reward to Mary’s keening at the Crucifixion, was in store with the onset of Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater. Jarrett didn’t venture to say where this Stabat Mater ranked among over 80 settings of this 13th century hymn listed in Wikipedia, but it’s certainly among his top choices for works scored for 10 voices – and he was obviously excited to add it to the Cantata Choir’s repertoire and share it with us.

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Unlike the traditional Requiem, which is broken into distinctive stages, the poem venerating Mary is continuous and rhymed, following an aabccb scheme from beginning to end. When printed in stanzas, it’s usually presented in three-line tercets, so it’s interesting to observe how various composers divide the 20 tercets in their settings. Pergolesi and Poulenc, for example, wrote their settings with 12 sections, while Rossini and Dvořák preferred 10 – not agreeing at all where the intervals should be. Domenico Scarlatti’s setting was presented in eight parts (his dad, Alessandro, also set the hymn – in 18 sections), tilted more toward the choral idiom than Rossini’s and Vivaldi’s without layering on Dvořák’s orchestral preamble and blandishments.

There was no instrumental preamble at all in the opening “Stabat mater dolorosa” (“The sorrowful Mother”) section, and though the sopranos dominated early here over Haigh’s organ, the men added warm empathy and deeply textured gravity. By the end of the ensuing “Cuius animam gementum” (“Her grieving heart”) section, the Cantata Choir produced a more massive sound in the passage depicting Mary’s grieving and trembling, growing plaintive and pleading at its concluding question: “What man would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such torment?”

Scarlatti’s third section, “Quis no posset” (“Who would not share her sorrow”) was hushed and slowed in Jarrett’s interpretation, so the ensuing “Eia Mater, fons amoris” (“O Mother, fount of love”), addressed to Mary, sounded freshened with heightened speed and volume, with a spate of new counterpoint launched by the female voices. The Choir’s ardor bordered on joy in the penultimate “Juxta crucem tecum stare” (“To stand beside the cross with you”), yet the closing “Inflammatus et accencus” (“Lest I burn, set afire by flames”) began more quietly and focused than the text suggested, virtually a duet with tenor Steven Soph most prominent. Stately harmonies took over in the final tercet, “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body dies”), cresting in resolute affirmation with the Amens.

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Soph moved downstage to sing the lead voice in Monteverdi’s “Audi coelum” (“Hear, O heaven”), literally upstaged by tenor Patrick Muehleise who vanished behind the Choir and sang the “echo” role at the end of each stanza – and by Jarrett, who gave way to Soph and led the other singers from upstage when they entered upon the duet for the final three stanzas. Certainly this was a lighter, cleverer veneration of Mary, for the vanished tenor only sang the last word of the previous stanza, usually abbreviating that word and transforming it into a different word. Soph’s “benedicam” (“bless her”) thus led to Muehleise’s “Dicam” (“I shall tell you”), but “maria” (“the seas”) was fully echoed to become “Maria,” introducing the song’s subject at last in the fourth stanza. The device persisted after the Choir joined the fun, until the penultimate stanza, ending in “solamen” (“solace”), segued into a full-throated Amen.

Pointing up the inner contrasts of Bach’s motet, Jarrett smoothed the transition between the beguiling Monteverdi devotional to the lachrymose opening line, “Komm, Jesu, komm mein Leib ist müde” (“Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary”). The singers’ acceleration in the ensuing line, saying they grew weaker and weaker, somewhat belied that resigned text before subsiding into a repeated lament on the sourness of their difficult path. Suddenly there was a complete hairpin turn toward happiness when the words “Komm, komm” repeated. Instead of their prior funereal lassitude, the singers merrily bounced the repeated words and the phrase that followed, “I will yield myself to you,” as if they were singing “Mr. Sandman.” After that upbeat ending to the Choral section, the concluding Aria began more slowly, comparatively hushed, and sleepier. But here Bach’s change of mood became more cohesive in Jarrett’s hands, giving us a satisfying ascent and resolution as we reached “the true path to life.”

If it were actually the traditional Latin Requiem translated into German, Musikalische Exequien would be far easier to describe, summarize, and pass judgment on concisely. The genesis of the piece is a little macabre, commissioned by Count Heinrich Posthumous Reuss for his own funeral in 1636 – with texts he chose himself and ordered engraved on the inside of his coffin. Only the first of the three parts of the work has anything to do with the Lutheran mass, embracing a Kyrie and a Gloria in a lengthy Concert section of 27 parts. Scored for six voices and continuo, the Concert comprises about three-quarters of the whole Exequien. It was a wonderful showcase for the BA|CH Cantata Choir’s singers as soloists, as deliverers of delicious harmonies, and as instruments of varied contrapuntal delights. Soph and alto Elizabeth Eschen impressed me most here.

Jarrett once again brought more contrasting contours in the middle Motette section, written for an eight-voice double choir. The prayerful opening line, “Herr, wenn ich nur Dich habe” (“Whom have I in heaven but you”), zigzagged no less than three times in the next four lines, sprightly, then morose, and then almost dancing in finishing with “God is my strength and portion forever.” Concluding his requiem, Schütz puts on his most elaborate – and confusing – show, scoring two different texts, the biblical “Song of Simeon” for a five-voice choir and a trio of soloists singing “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

The trio is directed by Schütz to sing at a distance from the main choir, so Jarrett deployed them to the rear of the chapel during the second interval. Quite a spectacle to take all this in at a live performance! The program booklet helped me to understand that the soloists behind me were finishing with a declaration that the dead “are in the hands of the Lord and there is no sorrow that disturbs them.” Up front, the chorus overlapped the trio and seized the final words, extoling the Christian messiah as “a light to enlighten all gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

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Wrestling with two foreign languages and waves of contrapuntal complications with no instrumental respite – and no intermission – for over 100 minutes, the audience earned the praise that Jarrett offered them for their zeal and endurance. I strongly suspect they were ready for more.