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Many of the greatest composers devoted their most fervent efforts to sacred music, so it’s a shame that so little of it is performed nowadays in churches, where so many worthy masterworks premiered. That’s why it was not only a huge treat to attend a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in D at Myers Park Baptist Church but also to see it given in the larger context of a church service. Music lovers nowadays tend to worship Bach’s melodic and contrapuntal achievements without giving a moment’s thought to their own worshipful, utilitarian purposes.
The Monday evening service began with church organist Matthew Manwarren playing Bach’s “Nun komm der heiden heiland,” an unfortunate choice since churchgoers apparently pay no more heed to organ music than to Muzak at the mall. Better if the programming order of the Opening Voluntary had been reversed, for when conductor Jonathan Crutchfield strode to the podium and led the orchestra in the Sinfony from Handel’s Messiah – with Manwarren moving discreetly to a portable instrument – congregants knew not to talk. But a pleasantly jarring moment was yet to come as Reverend Dr. Stephen Shoemaker, in his welcoming remarks, spoke quite eruditely about the evolution of Bach’s setting of the Virgin Mary’s canticle, as chronicled in Luke 1:46-55. The date usually given for its composition, 1723, is accurate enough, but the original key was E-flat. In deference to the trumpets, Bach transposed the piece to D in 1728, the version that is played today. Praise the Lord for Wikipedia! Equally informative – and welcoming – was Shoemaker’s homily, which traced the poetic ancestry of Mary’s song back to the Old Testament, most particularly Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel and the Psalms.
As the Chancel Choir majestically entered the sanctuary in their striking red-and-white robes, I recalled my previous visits to this place of worship some 20 years ago, when as a member of the Temple Beth El choir, I sat in the same pews during High Holy Days services, graciously hosted by MPBC. After the Chancel Choir pageantry, it was easy to take my cue from the congregants, standing while they joined in two hymns. Appropriately enough, since Bach uses a Latin text, the scriptural reading from Luke (given by dhijana scott-harmony, an alto in choir) rendered the full context of the Magnificat, including Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth and the communication between their fetuses – for both women were miraculously pregnant, Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist.
The orchestra didn’t play during the hymns – and the three trumpets and timpani sat out the Sinfonia – so the full impact of choir and the 17-piece instrumental ensemble was kept in reserve until the opening “Magnificat anima mea Dominum (My soul magnifies the Lord)” section of the Bach. Suspense was further magnified by a fastidiously choreographed procession of the choir from the rear pews to a platform behind the orchestra much closer to Crutchfield’s baton. In an instant, all my questions about the sanctuary’s acoustics, unresolved when I sang there so long ago from a corner of the hall, were triumphantly answered. As the trumpets punctuated the choir’s outcries and crowned the opening with their own heraldry, there was no more mistaking the sweet clarity of the sanctuary’s sonics than denying the stature of the Magnificat as a Christmas classic.
While better than two-thirds of the orchestra were members of the Charlotte Symphony, rather remarkable for a free concert, there was an obvious difference between the featured vocalists, plucked from the ranks of the Chancel Choir, and the guest vocalists who sing for Symphony subscribers uptown at the Performing Arts Center. Seven of the 12 sections of the Magnificat were sung by six vocalists or less, including five solos. Yet there is nothing at the PAC’s Belk Theater to compare with the Myers Park pulpit and the curving staircase that wind’s up to its commanding perch – so while the solos weren’t as powerful, the spectacle of the soloists mounting the pulpit to sing was surely a handsome compensation.
Best of the pulpit soloists was Susan Shoemaker-Murphy, who sang the soprano solo of the “Quia respexit” third section over a lovely oboe d’amore obbligato by Terry Maskin. There were other instrumental felicities at ground level, including intertwining flutists Liz Landon and Jennifer Dior in the “Et misericordia,” the pizzicato work by cellist Matthew Lavin and bassist Felicia Konczal-Sink in the poignant “Esurientes implevit bonis,” and some more fine Maskin work – this time on the modern oboe – in the “Suscepit Israel.” But the biggest thrills came in the outer sections – and about midway in the “Fecit potentiam” – when the mighty trumpet section weighed in with Charlotte Symphony principal Karin Bliznik ably backed by Richard Harris and Chris Fensom. The three trumpets were a force to be feared as well as admired, for the front-row pew on their side of the sanctuary was left vacant, never more wisely than in the rousing “Gloria Patri” that concludes the Magnificat.