On Saturday night, the Bach Sinfonia performed works by Christoph Graupner, Georg Friedrich Kauffmann, and their namesake Johann Sebastian Bach, all candiates for the job of Kantor of Leipzig in 1722-23, thus documenting an instant in history that proved to be quite musically significant. But then the Sinfonia took it further, procuring electronic devices from Turning Technologies that allowed the audience to instantly vote on each of the works, effectively turning the audience into a modern-day Leipzig town council. At the end of the evening, the scores were tallied, and the new Kantor of Leipzig was…Georg Kauffmann.
That’s not how it happened in real life, of course; Bach became Kantor and stayed in Leipzig for the rest of his life. But I credit the Bach Sinfonia for being willing to let the audience give its opinion. Typically, classical performers determine what’s good, tell you why it’s good, and then play it for you. Here artistic director, conductor, and program note writer Daniel Abraham specifically refrained from saying anything about the relative quality of the works, trusting that the audience would enjoy judging for themselves.
For me, the lesson of the program was: Bach-ing ain’t easy. The program opened with BWV 22, Bach’s “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe,” and it sounded like, well, another Bach cantata. I mean, they’re really good, but there are over 200 of them, and sometimes they sound a lot alike to modern ears. When Bach returned to close the program, though, with BWV 23 (“Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn”), the difference between JSB and lesser Baroque lights became clear: He had a more interesting, less static mix of harmonies; his writing fit the voice more gracefully; he knew how to bring a melody, and a movement, to a close at just the right time.
Bach also just plain had more arrows in his compositional quiver than Graupner, who after three pieces had worn out my ears. I enjoyed CG’s setting of the “Magnificat,” which breaks up the text into short, sharply characterized movements, punches those movements up with trumpets and timpani, and closes on a fugue whose creaky but earnest counterpoint I found irresistible. In “Aus der Tefen rufen wir,” though, Graupner kept bringing back mediocre music for no obvious liturgical or musical reason, and his “Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden” just dragged on and on and on, to the point where I wondered whether certain arias were ever going to end. The latter cantata also showed the limitations of Graupner’s writing for the voice; alto Charles Humphries, who otherwise handled his duties with no trouble on Saturday, had to repeatedly tense himself and rock upward in an extremely uncomfortable-looking manner to get through the aria “Ein Christ, der Christum liebet.” Tenor Craig Lemming had trouble pronouncing the big German consonant combos in “Gleich wie die Waage wanker,” which I also blame on Graupner for not letting said combos lie on the melody in pronounceable ways.
As for Kauffmann, I gave his “Die Liebe Gottess ist augegossen in unsere Herzen” (which received its North American premiere on Saturday!) a low rating because he used a little alternating-note figure to bring all his melodies to a close, which eventually sounded like some kind of tic. The audience didn’t agree with me, giving him a mean of 7.79, which narrowly bested Bach’s two-cantata mean of 7.72. However, BWV 22 garnered a 7.35, while the concert-closing BWV 23 rated an 8.09; perhaps the intervening pieces made others think, “Hey, there might be something to this Bach guy being considered a great composer after all.” It appeared that other people also got a bit tired of Graupner, since his per-piece means dropped from 7.87 to 7.61 and finally to 7.37. (Of course, the differences we are discussing are not statistically significant, but I like to think that the audience was tracking my thoughts, since I was part of the audience.)
Kauffmann’s scores might have suffered the same fate as Graupner’s if his solo cantata “Unverzagt, beklemmtes Herz” had received its own North American premiere. Unfortunately, soprano Céline Ricchi, who was to have sung at the concert, took ill; fortunately, Abraham found Emily Noël to take her place, and Noël did an amazing job singing the remainder of the scheduled music with a week’s study. Her energetic characterization of “Komm, komm, mein Herze” from Kauffmann’s cantata made the aria sound better than it really was, and her duet with Humphries in the aria that opens BWV 23, the two voices ably navigating Bach’s intricately intertwined melodic lines, helped reestablish Bach’s supremacy at concert’s end. Bass Phillip Collister sang commandingly all evening, his voice like a summons to order; it achieved an especially dramatic effect in BWV 22; with a recitative like a sermon on steroids.
Some of the instrumental contributions were not up to the Bach Sinfonia’s usual standard. The violin section sounded sour and out-of-tune for BWV 22, although they shaped up and played better for most of the remainder of the concert. No such luck for the oboes, who had some unfortunate mistimed entrances (including one mistook-the-recitative-for-the-aria moment) and never quite got on point. As always, though, the continuo section of cellist Douglas Poplin and violone player Robbie Link played tight, strong, and imaginatively, with an assist on organ from Dongsok Shin. Trumpeters Joshua Cohen and Stanley Curtis had a brilliant sound that probably helped Kauffmann and Graupner score a few points over the trumpetless Bach entries.
That last point indicates the limits of relying strictly on layperson rating. On the other hand, from what I could hear, the audience discussed the music excitedly at intermision, waited eagerly for Abraham to announce the results post-concert (even though the concert went pretty late into the Saturday night), and generally buzzed with enthusiasm for the task of listening closely to the music. I’d say that makes the Bach Sinfonia’s idea for presenting this concert a successful one.
YOUR POINTLESS NOTES FOR THIS CONCERT
- For the record, I gave the two Bach pieces an 8 and a 9; the Graupners a 9, 7, and 4; and the Kauffmann a 6.
- My mom and my other concertgoing companion both felt that Emily Noel’s dress was extremely cute. Apparently it had ruching. I was going to look up how to spell that, but I’ve decided it’s more authentic to potentially misspell it.
- Violinist Risa Browder has Michelle Obama arms. I know you don’t need to be jacked to play the violin, but it doesn’t hurt, I assume.
- The Bach Sinfonia’s last concert this year is May 5, which means I personally can’t go, but you should go, because it has the music of Jan Dismas Zelenka, and that stuff is worth hearing. Trust me.
Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette.