A bright full moon outside St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Durham shone no more brightly than the collected musicians of the Duke Vespers Ensemble and Capella Baroque, under the sure hand of conductor Brian Schmidt.
If there is a better vocal/instrumental chamber group in the Triangle area of NC, I have yet to hear it; Schmidt's group sets a standard worthy to be emulated. This program, presented as part of the North Carolina HIP (Historically-Informed Performances) Music Festival, focused on music appropriate for the Christian liturgical season of Lent, composed by Lutheran and Roman Catholic composers who were born in the 17th century and, with the exception of the oldest among them, lived into the 18th century. Three of them (Johann Schelle, Johann Kuhnau, and J.S. Bach) were, in succession, cantors at St. Thomas' Church, Leipzig.
The concert appropriately began with Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka's setting of Psalm 51, a text appointed for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In his verbal program remarks (augmenting those in the handsome illustrated 20-page program booklet), Schmidt called this work "vivid and vibrant." Those words as well describe the performance. In a unique musical structure, Zelenka treats the psalm's opening words, "Miserere mei, Deus" ("Have mercy on me, O God"), as an ostinato that is tossed back and forth between sections of the chorus while the remainder of the psalm's text is sung. The instrumental material shows Italian influence reminiscent of Zelenka's contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. (While there is no record of Zelenka travelling to Italy, he may have been exposed to Vivaldi's music when he visited J.S. Bach in Leipzig; Bach, who admired Zelenka's music, thought enough of Vivaldi's works to transcribe several of them for the organ.)
The psalm ended with the requisite "Gloria Patri," its first half convincingly sung by soprano (and Duke Ph.D. 2016) Samantha Arten. At the words "Sicut erat in principio" ("As it was in the beginning"), the chorus returned with the "Miserere mei, Deus" ostinato figure, as it was in the beginning of the work. After a sudden unexpected minor-chord cadence, the orchestra also returned to the Vivaldi-like measures that began the work. The chorus seemed to be missing some tenor-section members, which affected balances from time to time, but the overall sound was always musical and vibrant.
From Latin to Swedish, the concert continued with a setting of the Lord's Prayer by an Italian composer, Vincenzo Albrici, who had settled in Sweden to work for Queen Christina. When the Queen decided to move to Rome, a service of abdication was held in Stockholm Cathedral; Albrici's "Vader vår" ("Our Father") was likely composed for this service. Each line of the prayer's text was sung first by two sopranos, then by the full choir. One can hear echoes of Albrici's teacher, Giacomo Carissimi, in the more florid vocal and instrumental lines.
The chorus retired to their seats for the program's next work, a cantata for bass voice and chamber orchestra by Saxon composer Johann Schelle, one of Bach's predecessors as cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Bass Joseph Hubbard's bright, open tone and his top-to-bottom even registers were perfect for this music. The work's opening text, Mark 16:16, gives the work its title: "Wer da gläubet und getauft wird" ("Whoever believes and is baptized"), the text that serves as prelude and postlude of the cantata. Four non-Biblical verses provide typical 17th century colorfully-pietistic texts which Schelle treats in his straightforward but compelling compositional style. Christopher Jacobson's organ continuo playing lent welcome color to the ensemble.
As the choir remained seated, the Capella Baroque, featuring oboist William Thauer, played a Concerto in C minor by Bavarian composer Johann Heinrich von Weissenburg, a.k.a. Henricus Albicastro. While called a concerto, this work is as much in the style of a Sonata da Chiesa, or "Church Sonata," distinguished from the usual three-movement (fast/slow/fast) sonata by the addition of an opening slow movement. In keeping with much of the other music in the evening's program, this music showed clear Italianate influences. Thauer, standing at his place within the ensemble for the Siciliana-like third movement, brought beautiful phrasings to the roulades of melody spun by Albicastro's pen.
With the chorus having returned to its semi-circle surrounding the instrumental forces, we heard a Maundy Thursday motet by Johann Kuhnau, but with its original text replaced and its unaccompanied mode changed by the addition of independent instrumental parts by (we think) J.S. Bach himself. (More on this here.) So instead of the original Kuhnau "Tristis est anima mea," which the Vespers Ensemble performed in Duke Chapel a year or two ago, we heard Kuhnau-as-arranged-by-Bach, its text now taken from Isaiah 57: "Der Gerechte kommt um" ("The righteous perish"). This short work, whatever its somewhat-mysterious history, evokes the end of life to which all people come. It was sung and played with a gentle firmness, as Schmidt's devotion to the text as well as the music brought a special quietness to the setting of the word "ruhen" (rest) in the final Isaiah verse: "And those who walk uprightly come to peace and rest in their chambers."
Circles of connections abound between the composers so carefully selected for this program: there was a German connection, especially the cities of Dresden and Leipzig, a friendship connection, an Italian-influence connection – so it was fitting that the final work was by the Danish-born composer Dietrich Buxtehude, who became so famous for his vesper concerts at the Mariankirche in Lübeck, Germany, that the young J.S. Bach walked some 200 miles to hear this early-Baroque master's music. Buxtehude's chorale cantata Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort ("Uphold us, Lord, by your word") presents each stanza of Martin Luther's text (to a tune by J. Klug published in 1543) in basic chorale style with instrumental interludes, appends Luther's German version of the Latin "Give peace in our time, O Lord," and concludes with a prayer which many would find particularly appropriate in today's fractious political turmoil:
"Grant to … all those in authority peace and good government, so that we among them may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty. Amen."
It was refreshing to hear so much glorious music from the Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions in our time when many parishes are rarely exposed to it. Congratulations to the NC HIP Music Festival for including this Lenten musical journey in its offerings, and to Schmidt and his musical forces for sharing their musical gifts with a large and appreciative audience.
To hear a beautiful recording of Albrici's setting of Fader wår, go here.