Last Monday, finding myself in New York, I picked through the New Yorker's
"Goings On About the Town" section and found a listing for that evening
of a Carnegie Hall concert by Dutch keyboardist and conductor Ton Koopman
featuring three Bach cantatas. Since New York has so many classical-music
mavens and I didn't want to be left out, I immediately phoned the box
office and scored two tickets. Programs of Bach cantatas - let alone
by first-rank performers - are rare in any case. I felt very lucky,
especially since the tickets cost me only $20 apiece - a bargain on the
scale of Manhattan prices.
As I went to the box office, I noticed a huge line of people waiting for
cancellations. I had expected the concert to be well-attended but not
sold out. The concert actually took place not in the main hall itself,
but in the smaller, relatively new Zanker Hall - part of the Carnegie
complex. Sources tell me it used to be a movie theater, but one sees
no trace of that now. It's a beautifully furbished hall, with great
sight lines and decent (though not blow-your-mind) acoustics, just the
thing for chamber concerts.
The program consisted of the Cantatas 6, 147, and 198 ("Trauer-Ode").
Some of you may know that Erato tapped Koopman to record all the Bach
cantatas. Unfortunately, Time-Warner, the parent company, fileted its
classical-music division, and the project dried up. Koopman went on to
found his own label to complete the cycle. I don't know whether he has
actually done so.
Generally, Koopman has done at least as well as Harnoncourt for Telefunken.
Bach's music can take - and often demands - many different approaches.
Indeed, the cantatas are so varied in expressive means and values that
one doubts a single interpreter would do them all successfully. Koopman,
like Harnoncourt, has his triumphs and failures. His advantages include
rhythms that spring like young gazelles, preternaturally clear textures,
and performers that play both "historically" and beautifully. On the
other hand, he often failed to capture the drama and intensity of the
more monumental cantatas, like No. 21, "Ich hatte viel Bekuemmernis,"
Koopman did not lead his usual ensemble of Amsterdam pros. The
concert was part of a Carnegie Hall Foundation program that affords
young performers from all over the world the chance to work with a great
musician. The instrumental group, which included two small organs, lute,
theorbo, traverse flutes, oboes, oboe di caccia, two gambas, as well as
the usual strings, and a 22-voice choir were all in their twenties -
conservatory seniors, MFAs, postgrads, and the like.
Consequently, I didn't expect what in fact I got: tremendous instrumental
ensemble and tonal beauty. From the opening bars of the first cantata,
it became clear immediately that these kids can play. Musical lines
bounded and bounced. In Koopman's hands, with gestures that seemed to
pluck the music from the air like a magician conjures cards, the cantata
danced. Furthermore, I couldn't discern any difference between the kid
choir at Zanker and Koopman's usual Amsterdam Baroque Choir. There was
the same textural clarity, the same tonal and textural unanimity that
made for exciting unisons, and diction so sharp that you really didn't
need the texts the concert hall provided. Like the instrumentalists,
the singers made beautiful phrases, connecting them into long arcs with
only the slightest expressive gasps between cadences, and they shaded
their lines by delicate yet proper word stress. However, the performance
didn't have the perfect mechanics of a studio recording. Here and there,
one met with rough spots, momentary cloudiness, an oboist fumbling through
a quick melismatic passage. On the other hand, Koopman could make
instantaneous and microscopic adjustments: a single cello suddenly
intensified, the oboe di caccia gracefully retiring into the texture.
His players always stayed with him.
On the other hand, Cantata 147, somewhat of a "penitential cantata,"
seemed to baffle him. Not that anything was badly done, but the music
didn't unfold in a convincing way. Sometimes, indeed, it didn't unfold
at all - a kind of wad o' Bach. One missed the dramatic surges, the
dynamic builds from low to high, and the "pointings" of musical and
expressive meaning, although the performance contained a stunning duet
between tenor and bass soloists. The two, avoiding identity of vocal
color, nevertheless made an elegant rapprochement, the phrasing and
melismas created as if by one mind, or like two different manuals on
an organ. This was a highlight of an already fine concert.
By the Trauer-Ode, things got back on track. Bach wrote the work on
the death of some countess or other, and he exploits the duality found
in other of his funeral cantatas: though we grieve for our loss of such
a good soul, yet she is happy in heaven. The music makes a monument
of sorrow, but it also rejoices in paradise. Koopman caught the tone
of the work right away. Indeed, this cantata came off the best of the
three. It had none of the occasional cloudinesses or dips of No. 6,
and Koopman sculpted a near-palpable musical shape. I became less aware
of playing as such and (excepting a couple of movements) began to notice
the work itself - not musicians, but Bach - an illusion that usually
occurs only when the performance is unusually good. The thing starts
with a sinfonia featuring a virtuoso organ part (perhaps Bach played it
himself), performed with nervous verve by a young keyboardist named Avi
Stein - yet another highlight of the concert. You will probaby hear of
him in days to come.
The set of soloists varied in quality. Unfortunately, I lost my program
and can't remember any names, although I wouldn't mention the names of
students who didn't exceed expectations anyway. An alto had almost no
lower register. A soprano stumbled over her runs. Almost every soprano
had a thin, glassy top. Without exception, the men did better than the
women, thoroughly professional at least. A record producer or concert
promoter would do well to hire them right now. The standout of the set
was the Trauer-Ode bass soloist. He struck me as very much in the mold
of Koopman favorite Klaus Mertens, a favorite of mine as well. The voice
lacks weight - he will probably never sing Boris - but he makes up for
it in spades with breathtaking intonation and a complete mastery of text
and phrase. He is already a wonderful baritone, and I hope great things
The concert ended with enthusiastic applause, but I was one of the few
to give a standing O. It was easily one of the best concerts I've ever
heard, but, then again, I'm a rube. Ah, these jaded (and so lucky) New