Bach Aria Soloists illuminated a different side of their namesake composer on Saturday night, performing a mixture of works centered around both sacred and secular love.
By Alison DeSimone
Nov. 6, 2017
Kansas City is lucky to have Bach Aria Soloists in residence. This is a premier ensemble, expertly versed in historical performance practice, and one that approaches works of the Baroque period with a subtle mastery and an intense emotional connection with each of the pieces that they play. Saturday’s concert was no exception, and indeed, it was enhanced by commentary from Dr. Markus Rathey of Yale University, one of the twenty-first century’s foremost scholars on Johann Sebastian Bach. The ensemble played a smattering of works across Bach’s life and career, all of which focused—some more obviously than others — on Bach’s private life: namely, “love” in all of its forms. Dr. Rathey made connections between Bach’s secular love for his two wives, especially Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife and frequent collaborator. Bach also found love in God, setting texts that portrayed Christ as the bridegroom and the believer the bride. The evening brought together Bach’s secular and sacred worlds in ways that are often ignored, providing a full evening of musical entertainment to a sold out crowd.
Dr. Rathey opened the evening, contextualizing what would become one theme of the concert: J.S. Bach’s love for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. The two met while working in Cöthen; Anna Magdalena was a soprano there, and after they married, the couple forged a collaborative path that saw J.S. composing music for his wife (preserved in the two volumes of the Anna Magdalena Klavierbüchlein), and also saw Anna Magdalena copying music for her husband (especially the famous Cello Suites). Rathey’s lectures throughout the evening were illuminating, and he was especially talented at drawing connections between his history commentary and contemporary phenomena. My favorite analogy was his comparison of the Anna Magdalena Notebook, in which J.S. Bach compiled numerous types of musical genres and styles for his wife, with the mix tapes (or iPod playlists) of today. Rathey humanized both Johann Sebastian Bach and his wife, making them seem less like musical hero-geniuses of a time long past and more like us.
The program featured a mix of instrumental and vocal music, utilizing the ensemble members in various combinations. The opening of the concert featured Elizabeth Suh Lane, Bach Aria Soloist’s founder and artistic director, playing the Sonata in E moll for Violin (BWV 1023). Rathey’s introduction provided important musical commentary and made me listen with more intensity as Suh Lane navigated virtuosic improvisatory passages (in the Preludio and Adagio) and more upbeat characters (in the Allemande and Gigue) with grace and passion. I thought that the ensemble on this piece, between Suh Lane, Hannah Collins on cello, and Elisa Bickers on harpsichord, was the best of the evening. It was clear that the rest of the audience agreed — Rathey noted (as did I) that members of the audience were almost dancing in their seats, engaging with the music much in the same way that Bach’s audiences would have in the eighteenth century.
The next set of pieces were three arias drawn from different Bach cantatas; as Rathey noted, these arias all reference love in a sacred context, comparing Christ to a bridegroom that the religious faithful is eager to love. Sarah Tannehill Anderson sang with a clear tone and admirable intonation, especially on the aria “Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (from BWV 244), which is an incredibly difficult piece. The acoustics of Kirk Hall, however, were not kind at certain points; there were numerous occasions in all three pieces where I lost the sharp German consonants that I am used to hearing on recordings. There were also a few moments where the ensemble’s balance was off, covering Tannehill Anderson’s lovely soprano a little too much for my taste. Regardless, these three pieces were a delight to hear, and I think they best fit the narrative of Bach and love.
The concert ended with a “suite” derived from different, contrasting movements originating in many different compositions by Bach. Each individual movement featured a different instrumentalist of the ensemble: Elisa Bickers opened with a Praeludium from Partita No. 5 (BWV 829), which she played with excellent technique and careful attention to the character of each individual gesture. She was followed by Beau Bledsoe’s performance on the guitar of Bach’s Allemandefrom Suite No. 5 (BWV 1011, originally for cello); he gave a highly affective and moving performance. Next came Hannah Collins, playing the Sarabande and Minuet, both from Suite No. 1(BWV 1007). She brought an appropriate Baroque zeal to her performance, evoking a masterful sense of line, and her trills were tasteful and elegant. Finally, Suh Lane rounded out the evening with a vigorous performance of the Bourrée-Double from BWV 1002, showing off her trademark virtuosity.
While I enjoyed this pastiche of suite movements, I was a bit at a loss when trying to figure out the connection to the evening’s theme. Rathey did his best to link this “suite” to Anna Magdalena Bach, first by discussing the similarities with the organization of the notebook, and secondly by mentioning her role in the copying of these pieces. Nevertheless, the programming of this concert could have been a bit stronger; it might have been interesting to include “love songs” by Bach’s contemporaries, especially those composers whose music we know he owned and studied. One other minor issue: the concert was well over an hour long, without an intermission; it was clear that the audience was getting restless, as a number of people got up in between the arias and the final “suite.” Having a short intermission, even 5 minutes, would have been wise. Ultimately, however, Saturday’s concert provided a wonderful engagement with Bach’s music in ways in which he is seldom heard, and I look forward to their next concert.