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Bach the Dramatist and Washington Bach Consort

In spite of a compelling program, the Washington Bach Consort failed to unlock the full magic of the works of J. S. Bach at the Schlesinger Concert Hall Saturday evening. While many of the evening’s issues were the fault of a wide stage in a less-than-ideal hall for musical clarity, the opening Sinfonia (BWV 1045) started as a jumble, with different sections of the Consort beginning in varying tempi. Coordination problems continued throughout the Sinfonia, culminating in a musical collision that occurred in the chord when the orchestra stopped before a small cadenza. Half of the Consort tried to slow down; the other half pushed right through. Part of the blame must be assigned to conductor J. Reilly Lewis's unusual conducting style, with perhaps insufficient opening gestures to establish the beat and cues that seemed to be given not far enough in advance.

Next, the solo cantata for alto Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) contained very beautiful material sung by Barbara Hollinshead. It was a pleasure to follow the text to hear how Bach treats words of special importance, such as “Höllensünden,” which received a descending tritone-sounding interval. Hollinshead sang well, though her voice was perpetually covered up by the hefty upper-string section of eleven violins and violas. The second aria depicting sorrow was nicely accompanied by just single lines on the organ and harpsichord, and upper strings.

Other Reviews:

Grace Jean, Consort Puts Bach In a Dramatic Old Light (Washington Post, May 14)
The opening chorus of O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (BWV 34) featured a brass section that was either ahead or behind the rest of the Consort, and an overpowering bass section of the choir that would have been well suited in an Italian opera chorus. Countertenor Roger Isaacs sang an aria about bliss with tender phrasing and a round sound. The final chorus again had an uncoordinated start.

Based on text from The Aeneid, the cantata Zerreiset, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft (BWV 205) included staging. The diction of the choral ensemble was very clear in the opening Chorus of Winds, during which bass soloist Nmon Ford as Aeolus (God of Winds) marched around the stage in costume, shoeless, with a rod. His aria about bursting into laughter at the destruction caused by the power of his winds was filled with impressive runs on the word “lachen” (laugh). Ford wryly chuckled before and after this aria to great effect, thanks to the staging of director Catherine Flye. Oboist Washington McClain offered a lovely line to the aria by Pomona (the goddess of fruit sung by Barbara Hollinshead) with his mellow early oboe. Hollinshead and the other soloists were most audible when placed at the very front of the stage. German soprano Kirsten Blase as Pallas (the goddess of wisdom) gave fluid recitatives with her light and colorful instrument. In the recitative before the final chorus, Bach wrote an upward figure on the word “frohen” to signify happiness musically; Blase characterized this very persuasively. Many flubs by the brass section dampened the strength of the final chorus.

The Washington Bach Consort's 2007-08 season is a return to the familiar: the B Minor Mass (September 26, 2007), the Brandenburg Concertos (November 11, 2007), the Christmas Oratorio (December 7, 2007), the St. Matthew Passion (May 11, 2008). A few less standard works by Bach are also planned.

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