The overflowing sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church was treated to a full evening of Bach as the Eastern Music Festival presented one of its few offerings of vocal music. On tap were two great choral works by the master: the cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God), S.80, and the hymn to Mary, Magnificat ([my soul] magnifies), S.243. The icing on the vocal cake turned out to be two organ works played by Dr. André Lash on the magnificent Fisk organ that resides in the church.
A Prelude and Fugue served as the opener for each half of the concert. The one in D, S.532, revealed Lash’s authoritative playing with the sturdy full-voiced prelude. The fugue, beginning with a dainty registration consisting of flutes, provided a marked contrast. The G major, S.541, is one of Bach’s happiest works and a virtuoso wonder. Lash’s non-legato playing helped enunciate the fugue, and he pulled out all the stops for the loud, joyous conclusion.
Ein feste Burg is based on the famous hymn penned by Martin Luther, and that melody permeates most of the eight movements. The 30-voice chorus, comprised of many UNCG students and friends, sings in the opening movement, characterized by independent lines emanating from orchestra and every section of the choir. Regal trumpets solidly announced each line of the hymn overlaying the contrapuntal web. Holding it all together was EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz, whose animated and dramatic conducting goaded the forces to give their all. The choir is also heard in the unison presentation of the tune in the fifth movement and the final chorale.
The other movements provide showcases for the four soloists, soprano Kathryn Mueller, mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien, tenor Glenn Siebert, and baritone Scott MacLeod. Although Bach didn’t write any operas, these recitatives and arias could have easily been for the stage.
Any successful presentation of Baroque music depends on the continuo group — the bass line and an accompanying keyboard instrument. In this performance the musicians were superb providing a solid foundation that supported each movement. Lash, of course, was at the organ, and Susan Bates provided wonderful, sparkling harpsichord. Cellist Julian Schwarz and double bassist Meredith Johnson played as a unit, laying out a solid ground.
The Magnificat was wondrous. It was in this work that the audience got to really know the soloists. Mueller’s voice was stunning — crystalline clear in the gently moving "Quia respexit," which was enhanced by lovely oboe d'amore playing by Katherine Young.
O’Brien’s rich voice was well-suited to the fast "Et exultavit," and her singing of the "Esurientes," accompanied by two flutes and pizzicato strings, was one of the highlights of the performance. She was joined by Siebert (again with two flutes) in the lyrical "Et misericordia."
Siebert provided an appropriate urgency in his dramatic singing of the "Deposuit." MacLeod’s singing of the "Quia fecit" was hearty and majestic.
The other movements are given over to the chorus, which sang with great energy and clarity, an indication of the superb preparation provided by rehearsal director Dr. Carole J. Ott.
Maestro Schwarz often seemed to strive for an especially dramatic presentation (could Bach ever be TOO dramatic?), which seemed clear from the opening choral movement, a joyous orchestral introduction with all three trumpets blaring before the choir joins the fray. That energy was felt throughout the work as the conductor vigorously led the forces through the twelve movements, keeping the reins taut throughout. The enthusiastic audience was reluctant to stop its applause.
Edited on 7/27/2013