The Fifth biennial Magnolia Baroque Festival moved closer to conclusion with a program of Bach cantatas in the historic Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. The church was established in 1771 and its gorgeous, intimate sanctuary was built in 1800. Frequent festival attendees will remember the long association of the Moravians with the music of their times and the rich treasure trove of late baroque and early classical music in their Archives. The festival’s orchestral ensemble consisted of the string players in the May 26 performance - Julie Andrijeski and Ingrid Matthews, violin, Karina Fox and John O’Brien, viola, Brent Wissick, cello, and Tracy Mortimore, double-bass, to which was added bassoonist Allan Hamrick, oboist Debra Nagy, and valveless trumpeter Barry Bauguess joined by students Rick Murrell and Joelle Monroe. Joseph Gascho played the chamber organ. The festival chorus consisted of 15 skilled singers from which the four soloists were drawn.
The closing chorale from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben S. 147 opened the concert. Its popular melody is better known as Jesu, joy of Man’s Desiring. The choir’s diction and projection was excellent, and dynamics were aptly adjusted. Nagy’s mellow oboe melody was seamless and blended well with Julie Andrijeski’s solo violin. Bauguess’ subtle support on trumpet was exemplary. Cellist Brent Wissick, bassist Tracy Mortimore, organist Gascho were joined by bassoonist Hamrick for a rock solid bass line.
Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen (Weeping, wailing, lamenting, fearing), S. 12 was composed for the third Sunday after Easter and first performed on April 22, 1714 at Weimar and revived at Leipzig on April 30, 1724. It was the second cantata Bach composed for Weimar after he was appointed concertmaster and it is best known for the composer reusing the first vocal movement for the “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” in the Mass in B Minor, S. 232. Bach wrote out the embellishments for the oboe in the 1st and 4th movements and they show his mastery of the Italian style for slow movements. Festival director Glenn Siebert conducted only the choral movements in both cantatas.
The choir delivered the opening chorus with good diction whether massed or divided and set against each other. The opening slow paced tempo was ideal for conveying grief. After a brief faster paced section the mournful mood of the opening returned. Every word was perfectly clear during alto Mary Siebert’s recitative which led directly to her aria about Christ’s suffering upon the cross. Tortured harmonies and melodies were set against the C major scale in Andrijeski’s violin solo. There was a visceral quality about the extraordinary robust voice of bass soloist Jason McKinney in his aria about accepting Christ and embracing the crucifixion. McKinney’s voice is one of the few basses I would describe as “clarion!” His deep, rich continuo support came from violinists Andrijeski and Ingrid Matthews, cellist Wissick, and organist Gascho. Gascho joined oboist Nagy to spin a seamless melodic line, decorated with apt ornamentation, to support the golden, mellow tone of tenor Glenn Siebert in the next aria. Every word was clear. Siebert turned around to lead the closing chorale.
No one has bettered the great baroque composers at providing rousing music with brass and percussion to celebrate special occasions! J. S. Bach was already a master at this art when he composed Erschallet, ihr Lieder (Ring out you songs), S. 172. This was the third cantata he composed at Weimar after he had become concertmaster. It was first performed at Weimar on May 20, 1714 for Whit Sunday (Pentecost) and performed several times later in Leipzig in 1724, 1731, and some time later. The instrumental parts were in D major in the first version but Bach notated the parts in C major for the 1724 version which also ended the work by repeating the brilliant opening chorale.
With flawless brass playing from Bauguess’s team of three trumpets and John Beck’s assertive, confident timpani, Cantata 172’s opening chorus could hardly fail to please. The chorus’ words were perfectly clear, and the interplay between its sections was delightful to hear and see. Their sections were well-balanced. With a “proto-Boris Godounov” in the three-man bass section, they easily matched 5 sopranos, 3 altos, and 4 tenors! Jason McKinney’s robust voice gave the bass recitative conviction in spades. The spare continuo of violin, cello, and organ made an interesting contrast. Mckinney’s ringing delivery of the aria was simply magnificent with astonishing “visceral” low notes! Brass provided colorful contrast. Siebert’s clear, focused tenor was welcome in his aria which featured a well spun melodic line. Soprano Jeanne Fischer brought a broad palette of color and expressive dynamics to her duet with the even, firm alto of Mary Siebert. Oboist Nagy and cellist Wissick provided solid support to the duo of singers. Siebert led the strings, continuo, and singers in the original final chorale Von Gott Kömmt mir ein Freudenschein (A joyful light from God comes to me) followed by the repeat of the opening energetic opening chorale Erschallet, ihr Lieder.
This was an invigorating next-to-last festival concert, made all the more special by the historic venue! The high quality playing of festival students whet the appetite for the concluding all-Festival Institute student concert May 31 in Watson Hall.