Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 4
 
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
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Music/Theater

William Scheide Celebrates 95th Birthday With an All Bach Grand Musical Festschrift

Nancy Plum

William Scheide celebrated his 95th birthday as he always has lived — listening to great music and giving back to the community. More than 850 of his closest friends joined the musical scholar and philanthropist on Friday night to hear the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart play an all-Bach program, led by guest conductor Mark Laycock and featuring a number of vocal and instrumental soloists. In true Scheide fashion, the concert was not exclusively self-congratulatory; the musical festschrift served as a benefit for Centurion Ministries, a Princeton-based organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly-convicted individuals (a number of whom were invited to the concert). Judging from the nearly full house at Richardson Auditorium and its reaction to the full length concert, the evening was a rousing success all the way around.

Over the past year, conductor Mark Laycock has returned to Princeton several times from his new home in Germany to lead a guest orchestra, also usually brought in from Europe. On Friday night, the guest ensemble was Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, a long established orchestra specializing in music of the Baroque, especially that of Bach. The Bach-Collegium brought a small but solid ensemble which demonstrated a crisp clean style of playing in some very quick tempi.

The repertoire selected for Friday night’s concert was rooted in Mr. Scheide’s long association with the Bach Aria Group, which he founded in 1946 and directed for almost forty years. Each aria and instrumental piece on the program had special meaning to the Scheides, whether a favorite aria or a fitting text for the evening. All of the featured soloists, both vocal and instrumental, thoroughly enjoyed themselves as they expertly wended their way through the cantata and orchestral excerpts.

Mr. Laycock and guest violinist Kristóf Baráti got the concert off to a quick start with Bach’s Sinfonia in D Major. Although the solo violin was hard to hear through the orchestral fabric at the beginning, Mr. Baráti took center stage by the end of the piece with very clean strings, winds and brass accompaniment. The brass section of three trumpets was one of the best parts of Bach-Collegium, and the pair of oboes (Julia Ströbel-Bänsch and Irene Draxinger) put as much energy into playing a three-note motive as they would have for a long melodic line. Mr. Laycock constructed the music swells effectively, and brought out especially nice viola lines.

The vocal soloists for the evening were selected with the assistance of Scott and Lisa Altman, directors of Opera New Jersey, which presents its own series of performances in the Princeton area. All five soloists had national stage experience and the two sopranos were at totally opposite ends of the vocal and dramatic spectrum.

In the first cantata selection, mezzo-soprano Emily Langford Jonson and tenor Scott Ramsey joined for an aria from Cantata 205, accompanied on obbligato flute played by Mimi Skillman with very clean cello playing by Matthias Wagner and continuo organ played by Webb Wiggins. Bach mezzo runs are very tricky (it is sometimes hard not to make them sound like machine guns) and Ms. Langford Johnson handled them well, and her voice soared in the upper register. Mr. Ramsey also maneuvered the vocal lines extremely well in each of the arias in which he sang.

Layla Claire was the “lyrical” soprano for the evening, and her clean sound and reserved but sensitive style carried her through the aria selections from Cantatas 3 and 120a. “Leit, O Gott” from Cantata 120a in particular showed Ms. Claire’s delicate control of the ornaments, and accompanying violinist Mr. Baráti played the obbligato part with the sensitivity of a Schubert song.

These three singers, together with bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, provided plenty of high quality vocal singing for the evening, but a totally different kind of soprano was needed for the vocal quartet to sing Mark Laycock’s more than unusual “Die Fünfundneunzigste Geburtstagmusik,” his 95th birthday musical gift to Mr. Scheide. This piece began normally enough, with the quartet (joined by soprano Melissa Fogarty) singing “Happy Birthday” against the instrumental accompaniment to Bach’s “Wachet Auf” chorus from Cantata 140. After this serene introduction, the birthday ode took off into a vocal and instrumental transcription of some of Bach’s most difficult orchestral passages, with ripping runs galore.

Ms. Fogarty’s reviews have described her “delirious abandon” onstage, and Mr. Laycock’s newly composed “Geburtstagmusik” was both delirious and full of abandon, especially for the soprano part. All of the vocal soloists (including Mr. Laycock himself) pulled high speed runs out of their back pockets and sang with exuberant abandon to celebrate the day, amazingly making it through the piece without dissolving into gales of laughter, which the audience had already done.

Mr. Scheide seems to celebrate his birthday this day every year (last year Mark Laycock composed something along the lines of fourteen ways to sing “Happy Birthday”), and if Friday night’s event was any indication, Princetonians had better mark Mr. Scheide’s 100th birthday on their calendars now.

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