I like cities comfortable in their beauty and age. Therefore, Boston
counts as one of my favorites. Large tracts of it come from the 19th
century, particularly around the Commons and the Public Gardens. The
view across the Charles from the T train from Cambridge takes my breath
away. It emphasizes a city built to human scale and for the pleasures
of walking. Few buildings rise higher than ten floors. Unlike the giant
grids of New York and Chicago with their sense that you've found yourself
in the middle of an endless, hard universe, Boston curves and opens to
lovely vistas there, it seems, just for you. I'd want to live there all
the time, if not for the fact that I couldn't afford to.
Through the cold and wet last Sunday morning, I walked to Newbury Street
the second week in a row. For the price of two train tokens (and something
in the collection plate), I got the bargain of live Bach, performed by
conductor Craig Smith and the musicians of Emmanuel Church. I lusted
after any clue that would tell me how they pulled off their programs
week after week.
I arrived a little late, due to the fact that nobody I asked on the
street seemed to know the church at all. The people who knew were
probably already either at Emmanuel or in another church. In one case,
well-meaning directions took me ten blocks out of my way, practically
to the river. At any rate, I missed an organ prelude, Bach's "Wer nur
den lieben Gott laesst walten," and the first motet, Schuetz's "O Jesu
However, organist Nancy Granert played Buxtehude's "Gott, der Vater,
wohn uns bei," a piece of few notes, but one which seems to announce
Bach waiting in the wings. Basically, it's a simple melodic decoration
of a chorale, but it differs from Bach only in the level of textural
complication. Each note tells, and the harmonic sense is masterful.
Granert played beautifully, with soft colors and a strong flow from
beginning to end.
The choir repeated Harbison's "Communion Words" from the week before.
Again, they sang superbly but made me wonder whether they do this
particular number every week.
The headliner -- Bach's Cantata No. 27, "Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein
Ende?" (who knows how near my end?) -- dramatizes Bach's typical concern
with living each day in spiritual righteousness, so the soul can know
the joy of heaven. Death is seen as both judge and deliverer, and the
music reflects this duality. The opening choral movement and the final
aria (for bass) interested me the most. The first movement has the
designation "Chorale and Recitative." However, one should take "recitative"
with a grain of salt. There's no cutting up or stopping and starting
in these passages. The pulse remains steady. What really happens is
that the choir sings one or two phrases of a chorale tune and then
soprano, alto, and tenor soloists continue seamlessly with more chromatic
passages, commenting on the chorale text, moving to harmonic regions
further out, and then returning to the next chorale phrase from the
chorus. At times, it's question-and-answer; at others, a solo cry cutting
through collective anxiety. The formal layout appears throughout Bach,
particularly in the organ chorale-preludes, but it's the orchestration
of full chorus "interrupted" by soloists that make this movement stand
out. The bass aria, a lullaby and farewell to the troubles of the world,
is noteworthy in that it seems caught between the High Baroque and the
simpler, more direct galante style. If you were told the aria had been
written by CPE Bach, you might have said, "Way to go, CPE!" but wouldn't
have been surprised.
The soloists (I missed the Schuetz, remember, and so didn't hear Jayne
West, Krista River, and Frank Kelley this time) differed from the ones
last week but achieved the same high quality. However, alto Pamela
Dellal stood out, singing her aria (the soul welcomes the bridegroom
Death to her bed) with warm tone, spot-on intonation free of the notorious
alto underpitch wobble, gorgeous phrasing, and direct emotional
This is my last weekend in Boston before I head to the classical wilderness
of South Carolina. Emmanuel provided most of the music I heard on the
New England leg of my trip, and to quote the chorale, "Es ist genug."