Tonight, the American Classical Orchestra performs at Alice Tully Hall with a packed house. ACO Founder and Director Thomas Crawford‘s exordium began by greeting the audience and describing J. S. Bach’s contrapuntal techniques and inventive genius. As he described Bach’s use of compositional devices like imitation, harmonic relationships, fugue, and harmonic choral voicings, he cued various orchestra and choir members to demonstrate the concepts. These displays were an excellent means of involving, informing, and heightening audience anticipation.
Bach’s music inspires and provides the finest choices for a program timed to celebrate the reopening of concert halls. As we seek artistic works from the Renaissance, it is evident that Bach’s music eclipses his great contemporaries like Handel, Vivaldi, Couperin, and Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti with its ingenuity, harmonic intensity, expression, and power that is frighteningly superior. With Bach, Baroque music achieved fulfillment, and while his colossal Art of the Fugue, B minor Mass, acoustically ground-breaking Well-Tempered Clavier, Brandenburg Concerti, and glorious St. Matthew Passion frequently come to the forefront, tonight’s sublime selections were perfectly, sumptuously apposite.
The sound balance between chorus, soloists, and instruments was notably excellent. Not by coincidence, as Crawford’s care and attention to detail are apparent, the size of the ensemble comports with requirements J. S. Bach cited to the Leipzig town council in 1730. “Bachian” textures were preserved and demonstrated with perfect clarity in this performance.
Crawford is not a pedant, and his conducting is fluid, precise, and expressive. He is unlike conductors who may express a stringent logic through a fallow performance of Bach’s works under a pretense of authenticity. Tonight’s orchestra used period instruments and was led by Crawford to charmingly express characteristics of Bach’s music, including its affektenlehre, mysticism, exuberance, grandiosity, reverence, and sheer beauty. As tonight’s works represent the apotheosis of religious music, they also represent a man who considered Heaven and Hell not as abstracts but as terrible truths. Bach once noted that the aim of music “should be none else but the glory of God and the recreations of the mind.”
Tonight’s vocal soloists were consistently excellent and included soprano Chloe Holgate, mezzo-soprano Helen Karloski, tenor Lawrence Jones, and bass/baritone Steven Eddy. Choral intonation, blend, pitch, and articulation were marvelous, and the delineation of the parts (e. g. SATB or SSATB) was fine indeed. That is, when several singers of the same part perform a passage in unison, they blend so that “one” voice projects. This characteristic of their singing reflects artistry infrequently achieved in choral concerts and particularly with large ensembles. Too often, we hear a singer in a section cutting through like an oboe soaring above the orchestra.
The orchestra with its strings, Baroque trumpets, woodwinds like recorders and oboe d’amore, and organ basso continuo projected a delightful, glorious sound. Orchestra and choir combined were enthralling, captivating the listener to glide through time and space to perhaps the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Saxony, where Bach performed cantatas for the church services of the court. String players used a minimal, light vibrato and tone usually associated with gut strings and Renaissance performance practice; pure, extended non-ornamented tones were radiant. Absent was the continuous use of overriding vibrato popularized by Fritz Kreisler, to which we have become accustomed.
J. S. Bach’s motet, Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus My Joy), BWV 227 (1723), represents the nonpareil of Bach’s efforts in this genre and is believed to have been written for the funeral of Johanna Maria Käsin, wife of the Leipzig postmaster. Tonight’s performance achieved the grandeur and solemnity of this work, the most complex of Bach’s motets.
It was inspirational to hear and see Bach’s Easter Oratorio performed. Sometimes set aside for the Christmas Oratorio or Ascension Oratorio, it holds a special place in the extant literature. Three baroque trumpets and timpani supported the majesty of the work as the ensemble’s performance effectively characterized and expressed Easter’s messages of joy, hope, praise, gratitude, the Resurrection, heaven, and expulsion of Satan.
The packed concert hall justifiably and lavishly applauded tonight’s artists for their well-proportioned artistic exegesis of ineffable piety.
Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance and Orch of St. Luke’s, Arthur Rubenstein performs the Larghetto from Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto, Les Arts Florissants at Versailles, and American Classical Orchestra at Harlem Parish.