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In the spirit of looking forward into the holiday season, the Duke Chapel Bach Choir and Capella Baroque under the direction of Dr. Brian A. Schmidt presented the final installment of 2016's Bach Cantata Series at Duke Chapel. Cantata No. 62, "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" or "Savior of the Nations, Come," looks forward to the season of Christmas with original texts by Martin Luther dating back to 1524, set to the music of J.S. Bach in 1724.
Organist Christopher Jacobson began the evening with Chorale Prelude No. 661, based on Cantata 62, giving a glorious wash of sound through the gorgeous Duke Chapel. The Chapel needed little decoration to get into the Christmas spirit, but it had been subtly lined with poinsettias and wreaths. The music of Bach is so at home in this space, especially on the organ with its pipes placed all around the chapel, such that the sound can reverberate contemplatively through the hall and gather listeners with its complex melodies.
Following the prelude came the masterwork itself, "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland," written in six sections punctuated by solos. The orchestra, Capella Baroque, a group managed in collaboration with Mallarmé Chamber Players, set the stage with the beauty and depth of Bach's opening movement. The first choral movement took a few minutes to settle into intonation and balance between the chorus and orchestra, but started the cantata with lively energy. Robert Bracey took the floor as tenor soloist in the aria "Bewundert, O Menschen," which was melismatic but clear in diction and projection. The timing was not the best between the orchestra and singers throughout this cantata, which could be blamed on the acoustics of Duke Chapel further than halfway back, or the projection of the different voices and instruments. It was distracting during solos that were otherwise expertly performed. However, this problem seemed to work itself out in the louder, slower choral movements and the following pieces after the Bach. Stephen Morscheck's bass recitative and aria were powerful, enthusiastic, and the highlights of the evening.
Dietrich Buxtehude's chorale concertato "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" No. 100 featured soprano Molly Quinn, a Chapel Hill native and favorite with a beautiful sense for Baroque singing. Unfortunately, timing issues persisted, giving the piece a rushed quality and losing some of its nuances in tempo and phrasing. The precision and subtle details are lost in such a large space; the glow of Buxtehude's music is taken away if muddled, so it may have been better to go for a simpler interpretation with less tempo and phrase fluctuation to keep from fighting against the chapel.
The final work of the evening was the "Magnificat" of Johann Schelle, who was the cantor of the very same church where J.S. Bach later became the cantor. Since the text was Latin, rather than German, the vocalists' diction seemed to come across more clearly. Schmidt proclaimed after lengthy explanations of the composers and their works that the sounds and balance of the "Magnificat" were "exactly what this space was built for," and that introduction did not disappoint. This piece felt much more stable, and had some very interesting text painting that was expertly performed. Text painting occurs when the composer has used musical techniques to outline the words being sung, such as the Latin word omnes, "all," being sung by the entire ensemble after lots of individual harmonies havee split them apart, or the bass soloist singing the phrase about those who fear God. Overall, this was a great composition for the choir to end the evening and certainly captured the season of giving thanks and appreciating what we have.