A fruitful “Town and Gown” collaboration brought together Cantari, the select smaller ensemble from the large community chorus known as Voices, directed by Sue Klausmeyer, and the UNC Baroque Ensemble, directed by Brent Wissick. Entitled “Music for a While,” (not mentioned in the program, this title comes from a setting by Henry Purcell of a text from Dryden and Lee’s “Oedipus” which begins “Music for a while shall all your cares beguile”), the concert featured motets by J.S. Bach and vocal and instrumental music by Henry Purcell.
Part of the greatness of Bach’s motets is that they can be beautifully performed in a number of ways. In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, they were most often performed a capella, despite the fact that Bach never wrote unaccompanied vocal music. Today’s most informed performances double the vocal parts with strings (for the double-chorus motets, strings and woodwinds) and continuo of keyboard and bass viol. We heard a middle-ground for the shortest and longest of Bach’s motets: Komm, Jesu, komm, S. 229, and Jesu, meine Freude, S. 227, each motet accompanied by organist Deborah Hollis (standing at the portativ pipe organ), ‘cellist Brent Wissick, and violinist Allison Portnow.
Although larger than any chorus which Bach conducted in Leipzig, the Cantari singers sang with clarity and with excellent diction, although some of the vocal lines’ endings disappeared because of un-Baroque-like diminuendos. The dialogue between choirs I and II of Komm, Jesu, komm would have been more evident if the two groups had been a bit farther apart from each other. The singers regrouped from their double-chorus formation into SSATB positions for Jesu, meine Freude. Congratulations are due for the program booklet, which had literal translations for the German texts, albeit with some loss to the hymn’s strophic form by printing out the repetitions of certain words which Bach inserted for emphasis. For the most part, the choir sang with spirit and understanding, recovering from a rocky moment in the second movement. With the exception of intonation problems in the “Denn das Gesetz” trio, the solo trios drawn from the chorus acquitted themselves well, particularly in “Gute Nacht, o Wesen,” where Leslie Heal Ray’s clear and beautifully-focused soprano was a delight to hear.
While other conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt have fostered a semi-staccato approach to Bach’s vocal lines, to the detriment of Bach’s word-bound music, Klausmeyer’s only nods to that style were in the second and seventh movements. In the second, each of the opening four words (“Es is nun nichts”) was sung staccato, each note totally disconnected from the other. This is not in Bach’s manuscript, and the words do not seem to call for it. Similarly, when “Jesu, meine Lust,” was sung detached in the seventh movement, the chorale melody was weakened.
The remainder of the concert consisted of music by English composer Henry Purcell, who, like Mozart, wrote an amazing amount of music in his short lifetime (1659-1695). His main venues were the Anglican Church and the operatic stage; we heard three sacred works and an instrumental suite from The Fairy Queen, a masque/opera based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Two “full anthems,” e.g., sung by the full choir without intervening sections for solo voice(s), were the first of the Purcell offerings: the well-sung “I Was Glad” is full of Purcell’s vibrant rhythms in declaiming its Psalm 22 text. In marked contrast of dynamics, “Hear My Prayer” was movingly sung as the chorus gently essayed its delicious dissonances. In the most quiet passages, Cantari’s sopranos managed to sound more like the boy ‘trebles’ for which Purcell wrote. The program notes’ error in stating that all full anthems were sung unaccompanied was made clear when both these full anthems were sung with organ accompaniment.
Prof. Wissick’s band of a dozen string players, harpsichord, and organ took the stage (all standing except the gambists and the harpsichordists) to play the Fairy Queen suite. Wissick, whose unsurpassed ‘cello-continuo playing undergirded the Bach motets, brought a more animated conducting style as he communicated the vigorous dance rhythms of the Hornpipe and Rondeau, the gigue called the “Haymaker’s Dance,” and the mannered Chaconne, a form of which Purcell was a master. The harpsichord, while beautiful to look at, could be heard only during a viol/gamba duet, its voice lost when the full ensemble played. Fine Baroque music-making throughout!
The concert closed with the vocal and instrumental forces combining in Purcell’s best-known verse anthem, “Rejoice in the Lord Alway.” Also known as “The Bell Anthem” because the descending scale which dominates the opening instrumental sinfonia reminded some of the omnipresent pealing bells of English churches, this anthem reminded us of just how wonderful “church music” can be. The tempo was perfect, the English diction as good as the German diction of the Bach works, and the verses nicely-sung by guest counter-tenor Ben Pruitt, tenor David Ray, and baritone Ryan Frazer. The performance was disturbed only by the pronunciation of “rejoice,” which was sung (evidently in an effort to avoid the English long-E vowel), as “rih-joice.” As Purcell gives equal weight to both syllables of the word, this was particularly hard on the ear. Nevertheless, it was a fine conclusion to an evening of wonderful music.