Some people make art more freely and spontaneously when they’ve considered each and every possibility of how to make the art before finally setting on their path. On the evidence of many Bach Sinfonia concerts, but particularly Saturday’s performance of the complete motets of Johann Sebastian Bach at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center, the Sinfonia’s music and artistic director Daniel Abraham is one of those people. Here, careful consideration of all the questions about and facets of those works led directly to some really astonishing performances.
Talking to the audience both before and during the concert, Abraham broke down in detail the impetuses behind the performance choices he’d made: the use of oboes da caccia rather than regular oboes as accompaniment for certain motets, the scholarship indicating that the chorales that traditionally close certain motets were added much later to the scores, the number of voices Bach had at his disposal versus the number he would have liked, even the gaps in our knowledge of why the motets were written. (Daniel R. Melamed‘s program notes provided even more fascinating detail about the motets.)
The performances showed the evidence of Abraham’s great care, plus his good choices in freelance performers. The Sinfonia Voci, on Saturday a sixteen-voice chorus, enunciated super-clearly (you didn’t need to look at the program at all to follow the German text) yet easily filled the hall when called upon to do so. Most of the motets call for two choruses, which on Saturday stood facing each other in a big V so that, from the center of the hall, you really felt the drama of Bach’s antiphonal distribution of the music, with each chorus driving the music forward in turn. The effect worked especially dramatically in the more homophonic motets like “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bein bei dir” (“Fear have none, I am with thee”) and “Ich lasse dich nicht” (“I won’t let you go”), thought to be from relatively early in Bach’s career. And the Voci stayed fresh and lively throughout the concert, a feat considering that nothing happens in the motets without someone singing; as the instrumental accompaniment merely doubles the vocal lines.
As ever, Abraham conducted with an eye towards lively rhythms, almost dancing as he lifted the beat for his ensemble; the Voci took his directions into their bodies, with frequent sympathetic head-bobbing. The rhythmic vitality gave Bach’s counterpoint a special lift, particularly in the fugue on “Alles, was Oden hat, lobe den Herrn” (“All things that breathe, praise the Lord”) in “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing to the Lord a new song”), which became a glorious cathedral made of fast-moving yet clear strands of melody. The final section of “Fürchte dich nicht,” in which soprano text is laid over a chorale in the other voices, sounded impossibly rich for 16 people, yet never became soggy due to its steady pulse.
The five soloists took on a special burden, singing with the massed Voci as well as exposing their single voices to scrutiny, yet when called upon they made their music special. The longest and darkest of Bach’s motets, “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, my true pleasure”), features the most solo work as well, and the contrast of the lone voices with the fuller vocal sweep of the chorus was heartwrenching; in “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” (“Good night, O creature”), in which sopranos Laura Heimes and Abigail H. Lennox, alto Anne Marieke Evers, and tenor Scott Mello kept Bach’s counterpoint aloft like a feather on a breath, floating between the soloists, gorgeous and sad. (Though bass Steven Combs was not involved in this most outstanding solo effort, rest assured he sang well too.)
In addition to vocal-part doubling from strings and winds (smartly played on Saturday), Abraham and Melamed argue strongly for continuo playing to accompany these motets, and violone player Robbie Link and organist Adam Pearl made that a treat too. Apart from a couple minor live-performance slipups, there was no weak link in this performance — at times I lost track of the fact that the music was being performed, because the Bach Sinfonia and Voci laid it out with such effortless joy. Instead, the music seemed to be hanging in the hall for me to glide through and explore. (A rare effect for a performance to have on a critic, to be sure.)
You wouldn’t think anyone would need to argue for the wonderfulness of vocal music of Bach, and yet at least in my recollection the motets aren’t professionally performed in the DMV nearly as often as the Mass or the two big Passions, while they sit a little bit above the capacity of the typical Lutheran church’s choir. Given the demands placed on the vocalists, you wouldn’t expect to hear a group try to do all six motets that are generally accepted as authentic in an evening. But Abraham and the Sinfonia Voci even tossed in a bonus seventh motet just because they like the “Alleluja” as a way to close a concert. And reliable attribution of authorship be damned, it was worth it, particularly in this memorable performance.
Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler.
Updated March 17, 2010, to correct several minor but embarrassing errors.