EMBELLISHMENTS OF ELEVATED JOY
Renowned Scholar Joins BAS for “Bach Extravaganza”
Judging by the sold out concert given by Kansas City’s Bach Aria Soloists at Westport Presbyterian Church Saturday evening, February 22nd, the music of the group’s namesake composer is as popular as ever. Five extra rows of chairs had to be set out to accommodate all who attended. A more welcoming space is difficult to imagine. The sanctuary has a homey feel of intimacy and the bright acoustics amazingly do not create echoes. This church has long been a stalwart presence in the Westport community offering free brown bag concerts, art shows, lectures and much more.
Saturday night’s performance was titled “Bach Extravaganza” and featured arias from cantatas plus concertos for various instruments and a suite for solo cello. What made this concert extra special was Bach scholar, Dr. Michael Marissen, who offered insight into the purpose behind Bach’s creations as well as their form and structure. His often humorous presentation was chock full of information and occasionally included arcane data about life and music in the eighteenth century, including the notion that Bach’s belief that all music is sacred, whether it’s secular or liturgical.
Sarah Tannehill Anderson got the evening started with a joyous soprano aria from Cantata 68, “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt.” Beginning with a lovely cello introduction beautifully played by Hannah Collins, the aria, “Mein gläubiges Herz,” is an unfettered expression of melodic joy, and Ms. Anderson projected that joy with a clear, bright voice. Her gymnastic leaps and artful addition of embellishments elevated that joy to a feeling of exultation.
Next was the Concerto in D minor for keyboard, BWV 1052. This turned out to be the surprise of the evening. The keyboard concerto would not be played on a harpsichord but organ. It was not an uncommon practice of the eighteenth century to modify a performance based on the availability of instruments. We were about to experience a historical recreation and the lovely Martin Pasi organ at Westport Presbyterian proved to be the perfect instrument.
With Dr. Elisa Williams Bickers at the console, this concerto took on an entirely new shape and sound. From the opening statement of the first movement to the playful conclusion of the third, this was an inspiring performance. I was initially worried the organ would not be able to provide a crisp sound in rapid passages, but that proved to be a needless concern. The quick response of notes was thrilling to hear and the choice of stops and artfully inserted embellishments by Dr. Bickers was alluring. And since the orchestra consisted of only one instrument per section, the interaction between soloist and orchestra was captivating to hear. I was so inspired by this surprise that I now want to hear more of Bach’s keyboard concertos on organ, especially an organ so attuned to the German Baroque sound as this Martin Pasi gem.
Cellist Hannah Collins then wowed the audience with an enthralling reading of the Suite for Cello in D major, BWV 1009. Her full, robust tone filled with space with a glorious sound. Her use of rubato in the Prelude followed by a quickening of the pace was elegant and tasteful. And she fully exploited the rhythmic confusion between duple and triple time in the Courante. A profound solemnity characterized the Sarabande which was followed by playful yet graceful Bourrées I and II. A jolly Gigue concluded the Suite. I could almost imagine an English sailor dancing in a pub. Throughout her performance, Ms. Collins displayed exceptional artistry and technical prowess.
Ms. Anderson then returned to perform two movements from Cantata 51, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.” Dr. Marrissen prefaced this with a short history of performance style in Bach’s day. It was originally written for boy soprano since women weren’t allowed to sing in the Lutheran Church of that time. Questions later arose as to the ability of a boy to sing this extraordinarily difficult part. But research into the average age people reached puberty in earlier times indicated that this boy could have been 18 or 20-years-old. Another of the many interesting tidbits he offered was that there is also a secular setting of this cantata that may have been sung by Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena.
Ms. Anderson was more than up to the difficulties of this work. It was wonderful to hear the emotional depth she imparted and the crystal clear high notes that effortlessly flowed forth. The harmonic realizations from organ and cello were beautifully done, and when the full orchestra of only four people joined in, it seemed perfection had been achieved.
Next we heard the Concerto for Violin in E major, BWV 1042. The soloist for this was Bach Aria Soloists founder, executive and artistic director, Elizabeth Suh Lane. The first movement was played with a handsome grace and style. I couldn’t help but sway back and forth, propelled by the energy and rhythmic drive the performers projected. Ms. Lane added stylish and thoughtful embellishments at the recapitulation.
The second movement featured an achingly beautiful melody that was given a sensitive treatment by Ms. Lane. The spare use of vibrato and a volume so soft as to be nearly unheard imbued this theme with introspective depth. This was overtaken by a rousing rondo, with solo violin engaging in a kind of tournament. The orchestra would play the rondo theme, but the violin would launch into new territory. Back and forth they went in a game of playful tag until they all reunited on the rondo theme at the end. This was met with a standing ovation and shouts of approval.
The remarkable evening concluded with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050. Flutist Carol Dale joined the orchestra and her fine tone blended perfectly with the other instruments. The first movement featured what commentator Dr. Marissen called “Bach’s Jimmy Hendrix” moment where the harpsichord seems go to off the deep end in an extended and wild cadenza. Ms. Bickers played this for all it was worth. Rapid arpeggios, scales and key changes were dashed off with ease.
In the second movement, violin, harpsichord and flute engaged in a moving exchange of theme and harmony. This extensive movement was played with deep emotion. The musicians then launched into the foot-tapping last movement. Here Bach showed us the meaning of perpetual motion. This was played with such exuberant energy that not even with someone’s shoes loudly clomping in the back of the hall could interrupt the mood.
This is the way Bach should be heard. The small orchestra of just one musician per part allowed for every note to be clearly heard. Second violinists Destiny Mermagen and Stanley Cheng Hao-Kuo along with violist Elaine Ng should also be commended for adding their artistry in the orchestra. The concert lasted nearly two and a half hours with one tiny break but it seemed much shorter. That is indeed laudable. Thanks to Bach Aria Soloist for adding to the depth of experience by featuring such an informative and witty Bach scholar.
This article originally appeared on KC Arts Beat Facebook Page.