Sunday near the Park with Bach
At the end of an interesting month, to say the least, I find myself in
Cambridge, Mass. Last Sunday, a friend asked if I'd like to hear a Bach
cantata at Emmanuel Church in Boston, something the church apparently
does every week, usually under the direction of Craig Smith (I misheard
this initially as Gregg Smith), who had worked with Peter Sellars in
that director's Mozart opera series. The cantata in question, number
180 "Schmuecke dich, o liebe Seele," happens to be one of my favorites.
So we took the T train to the Park station and walked through the Boston
Public Gardens to Emmanuel.
Having sung in a lot of church choirs in my life, including some very
good ones, I wondered how good such a performance could be. Bach's
cantatas take some effort, usually more than one weekly rehearsal can
contain. I kept my thoughts to myself, however.
We arrived, found an empty pew with lots of leg room, and looked
through the order of worship. In addition to the Bach cantata, the
service contained two motets by John Harbison (also on Emmanuel's music
board), a Schuetz motet, two Bach organ preludes, and one by Buxtehude.
A choir would be good and lucky to get through one of these things after
a week's work. My misgivings grew. However, I had to admit the music
cannily chosen. The service opened with Bach's organ prelude on the
chorale tune "Schmuecke dich, o liebe Seele" ("adorn yourself, o beloved
soul"), a late, meditative work filled with complex, but not tortured
chromaticism. The organist, Nancy Granert, not only chose beautifully
clear textures, she played the piece with great musical understanding.
So often under the fingers of middlng performers, the rhetorical thread
of Bach's keyboard works disappears, particularly true of the longer
ones. At least I had the organ pieces to look forward to. The chorale
itself appeared in the service as a congregational hymn. So we were
well prepared for the cantata.
The choir came in with Harbison's "Concerning Them Which are Asleep,"
an daring score of dense counterpoint and medium dissonance. I had known
only Harbison's instrumental music previously. Certainly nobody in New
Orleans had done anything with the choral works. Almost every director
there had given up presenting contemporary music, on the grounds that
"since nobody liked that stuff anyway," they shouldn't spend the effort.
Church choirs usually dealt in less troublesome stuff, from the abominable
"praise music" to easier anthems. Harbison makes no concession to
practicality. This motet, in its ambition at least, occupies a major
place in his catalogue. On the basis of this work alone, I regard him
as one of the great modern choral writers.
The choir blew me away. It handled the score's difficulties as if
they simply didn't exist. The music, at low dynamic and thickly packed,
separated into cogent lines and dramatic argument. Intonation was superb,
the tone light, clear, and of a piece. No one just planted both feet
and wailed. No one singer stuck out, not even soloists. Every part
knew when to come forward in the texture and when to step back. Indeed,
I've heard choral CDs that didn't come up to Emmanuel's technical level
live. The choir didn't present modern music, but music. Emmanuel's
singing drove home to me that, despite their advantages, recordings just
don't move you like a great live performance. There's always some veil
between you and the immediate, full power of the music if you and the
players aren't in the same room.
The chorus came in next with the second Harbison motet, "The Communion
Words" (I Corinthians 11:23-25), lighter and brighter than the first but
again written without compromise. In spots it reminded me of Kodaly's
choral music -- not a bad thing. If Harbison has written more choral
music, I definitely want to hear it.
Eventually we got to the cantata (the service, one of the longer ones
I've attended, ran to two hours). Smith led a full complement of choir,
soloists, and instrumentalists, including piccolo violoncello and oboe
da caccia. How much money this must cost the church, I have no idea,
but it can't be cheap. The cantata celebrates the soul's union with
God, God's mercy, and the presence of God's love through the communion
sacrament. Bach lays the cantata out along typical lines: an elaborate
choral opening, various solos, and a chorale setting at the end. In the
first movement, the chorus dances around the "Schmuecke dich" chorale
tune. All the virtues shown by Smith and the choir in the Harbison
stayed with the Bach. The tenor soloist, Frank Kelley, sang of the
soul's ravishment by Christ in speedy runs that went on forever. Kelley
has a light voice -- he won't be singing Siegfried any time soon -- but
it's flexible. He wins you over not so much by his sound (good enough)
as by his intelligence and technique. At one point, he reserved his
climax for the end of the phrase, normally the part where singers pray
for the air simply to finish. Soprano Jayne West, whom some may remember
from the televised production of the Sellars Marriage of Figaro set in
Trump Tower, entered with a recitative and a simple statement of the
choral, supported by (for Bach) simple counterpoint. She had a more
florid aria later on, "Lebens Sonne, Licht der Sinnen" ("Sun of life,
light of the senses), in which the quick chains of runs represent the
sparkle of light. I've heard maybe two better Mozart sopranos, including
a New Orleans native who had Mozart in her DNA, but West is one smart
and musical singer, with a tone like a sweetwater brook.
The alto and the bass soloists had the most thankless parts -- recitatives.
The bass solo is over in a twinkling. The alto solo may be the single
most difficult thing in the cantata, with harmonic ambiguities from
Neptune and beyond -- hard as sin to keep in tune -- as Bach portrays
the soul hovering between fear and joy while it contemplates its worthiness
for salvation. Krista River carried it off superbly.
The band played as well as many a named and feted group. Mary Ruth Ray,
violist of the Lydian String Quartet, did a wonderful obbligato to the
second soprano solo, while flutist Christopher Krueger skipped nimbly
in concert with tenor Kelley. The continuo group fried my socks, with
tremendous gamba and keyboard playing.
The bottom line is Emmanuel does this sort of thing every week. The
more I think about it, the more mysterious it becomes.
Maybe Boston really is the hub of the universe.