by Michael Caruso
The Chestnut Hill United Church hosted the Brandywine Singers in concert Saturday evening, March 18. Conducted by their artistic director, Jonathan Kraemer, the choir performed two motets by Johann Sebastian Bach and three modern scores based on traditional texts that fit into the ongoing continuum of sacred choral music dating all the way back to early medieval Gregorian chant.
Bach’s motets occupy a unique spot in his canon of sacred choral music. Although he composed literally hundreds of cantatas for the regular Sunday services of St. Thomas’ Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany, there are only six fully authenticated motets, all of which are thought to have been composed for use in funeral services. Whereas the cantata – an accompanied work in several movements for either solo voice and/or choir – developed during the baroque era of the 17th and early 18th centuries, the motet claims a late medieval ancestry. Cantatas were newly composed; motets were based on a florid passage taken from a Gregorian chant that had been given additional words. The name “motet” comes from the French term “mot” for word.
Kraemer and the Brandywine Singers used the two motets of Bach as the bookends at the beginning and end of their program. “Komm, Jesu, komm” (“Come, Jesus, come”), BWV 229, opened the concert and “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, my joy”), BWV 227, brought it to a close. The former, for double choir, was sung unaccompanied while the latter was heard with harpsichord accompanied played by Kraemer.
I was mightily impressed by how quickly Kraemer and his choristers caught the gentle, almost pleading mood of “Komm, Jesu, komm” through singing of pure tuning, immaculate ensemble, seamless blend, varied dynamics and an immediacy of diction that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bach had fashioned the notes specifically for the words at hand. There was a lilting flow to the singing that invited the audience into its world of sound as it enveloped the listener within its faith in the resurrection.
“Jesu, meine Freude” is a far grander work, divided into distinct movements more in the manner of a cantata yet fully contrapuntal in the fashion Bach inherited from such previous “Roman masters” as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. And yet, there’s always something distinctive about Bach’s counterpoint – a full-fledged fugue, for instance – that sets his music apart from that of virtually every other musician. And there’s a deeper delving into not merely the exterior denotation of the words but their more profound interior connotation than one encounters in other sacred choral music.
Kraemer and the Brandywine Singers gave “Jesu, meine Freude” a glowing reading Saturday evening. The choir’s full strength was beautifully conveyed during the chorale sections of the score while the panoply of individual lines bristled brightly during its contrapuntal passages. Even the daunting fugue was delineated with consummate clarity of texture.
No less well rendered were the three modern scores that filled in the space between the two Bach motets. Kraemer and the Brandywine Singers projected the clouds of harmony in Eriks Esenwalds’ “O Salutaris Hostia” (“O saving victim”), the Russian Orthodox flavor of Arvo Part’s “Triodion” (the book of the proper prayers of the Russian Orthodox Church) and the pastel harmonies of Edwin Fissinger’s “In Paradisum” (“Into paradise”).
The Brandywine Singers’ season continues April 22 with Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” and May 20 & 21 with three more Bach motets. Visit www.thebrandywinesingers.org for ticket information.
The Academy of Vocal Arts continued its season of “European Journeys” with a program of German Expressionism Wednesday evening, March 29, in its own Warden Theater. Germantown’s Richard Raub, a longtime master vocal coach at AVA, was the music director and piano accompanist for the program, which included music by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Vocalists included baritone Timothy Renner, tenor Roy Hage, mezzo Hannah Ludwig, soprano Meryl Dominguez, baritone Jared Bybee, soprano Vanessa Vasquez and soprano JoAna Rusche.
Although the term “German” is applied to the movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, Expressionism in classical music is usually focused on what is called the “Second Viennese School” of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.
With Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss having blurred the boundaries of chromatic dissonance within the major/minor tonal system that had reigned supreme in classical music since the early 17th century, many 20th century composers felt compelled to find additional or other harmonic means of expression. For composers in England, France, Spain, Italy, Russia and Hungary, a return to the broader variety of the medieval modes of Gregorian chant offered an enticing alternative. For the Germans and Austrians, at the core of classical music procedures, that option wasn’t viable. Instead, Schoenberg and his students Webern and Berg pushed major/minor tonality beyond its limits into atonality and then abandoned it altogether in favor of the artificially contrived 12-tone serial system in which no single note dominates any of the others.
The result was a musical language that never fully caught on with audiences unless the 12-tone row contained within it implications of the previous style of harmony. Of the three, Berg was the most successful in accomplishing that feat of magic. As a result, his three works on Wednesday evening’s recital worked best. Also quite successful was Webern’s “Three Songs after poems by Avenarius.” Schoenberg’s early “Two Songs for Baritone and Piano,” Opus 1, were also effective. His “Zwei Lieder,” Opus 14, on the other hand, seemed little more than perplexing in that one wondered what had happened in his life between Opus 1 and Opus 14?
Throughout the entire program, Raub played with consummate pianistic skill and inspiring musical support for his young soloists. He caught the super-charged emotionalism of the lyrics yet carefully shepherded his vocalists in and out of their heightened musical gestures. It might not have been a soothing evening, but it certainly was a challenging one.
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill closes out its “Cantatas and Chamber Music” series Sunday, April 9, at 5 p.m. with performances of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Selva Morale e Spirituale” and Johann Hermann Schein’s “Israelbrunnelein.” Music director Dan Spratlan will conduct soloists from the church’s Gallery Choir, church organist Ken Lovett at the harpsichord and a baroque instruments ensemble. There will be a wine-and-cheese reception prior to the concert at 4:30 p.m.
“Concerts at the Cathedral Basilica” presents the University of Pennsylvania’s Ancient Voices in concert Saturday, April 8, at 8 p.m. in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. William Parberry will conduct a program of music by Palestrina, Victoria, Monteverdi, Sheppard, Gibbons, Weelkes and more. Visit www.cathedralphilaconcerts.org.
The Pennsylvania Ballet will present “Romance” at the Merriam Theater April 6 through 9. The program of modern works is comprised of “Remansos” by Nacho Duato to music by Enrique Granados, the world premiere of “Ghost Stories” by Nicolo Fonte to music by Ezio Bosso & Max Richter, and George Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” to traditional American melodies arranged by Hershey Kay.
Speaking of “Remansos,” artistic director Angel Corella said, “Nacho Duato is one of the greatest choreographers in the world, so I’m always attracted to all of his works. I love the way his movements, which are so poetic, never end but connect one to the next so that there seems to be a story to the ballet even when there isn’t one. Plus, I danced it when it was first performed at the American Ballet Theater.” Visit www.paballet.org for ticket information.
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