Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
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Westminster Choir College’s Bach Festival Celebrates Music of the Great Master

Nancy Plum

One does not often hear music for Good Friday in June. However every year, Westminster Choir College sponsors a week-long Bach Festival culminating in a presentation of one of the great composer’s masterworks. Since most of Bach’s choral music was written for the church (and his Passions for Holy Week), it is only natural that the work heard at the end of Westminster’s scholarly week would be out from the liturgical repertoire.

Saturday night’s Bach Festival 2007 concert in Miller Chapel featured one of Bach’s Good Friday Passions in a lesser-heard version. As explained by concert lecturer Professor Robin Leaver (Professor of sacred music at Rider University), Bach composed his St. John Passion for Holy Week 1724, and then revived it with a few changes the following year when his St. Matthew Passion was not quite ready for public display. The 1725 version of St. John borrows a bit from St. Matthew, as well as other previously composed works, and was presented on Saturday night in the form of a quasi-church service, opening and closing with hymns and loosely following the format of a 1720s service in Leipzig.

For the week preceding this concert, 35 chorister/scholars spent their days at the Choir College studying the history and performance practice of Bach’s music, as well as rehearsing the St. John. A number of these singers have returned to Princeton yearly for this festival, and it was this ensemble who sang the more massive choruses of the Passion. Festival Artistic Director Dr. Andrew Megill trained these singers well in Bach’s nuances, and they had their music well in hand, especially in the fugal choruses of Part 2.

The soprano choral sound had more color than some people might prefer in Bach, but the chorus did not have to sing loud in the Chapel to be well heard, even though they were mostly facing toward the altar. The nucleus of the choral sound was provided by Dr. Megill’s nine-voice Fuma Sacra, the members of which also served as vocal soloists.

All Bach Passions rely on an Evangelist, and tenor Stephen Sands, clearly a singer experienced in Bach, moved the Passion along quickly. Mr. Sands possessed a ring to his vocal sound which worked well in the space of the Chapel, and ended phrases sensitively, especially in the higher register. Mr. Sands’ singing also blended well with the continuo accompaniment of cello and organ (effectively played by Vivian Barton and Raphael Fusco). Mr. Sands was also especially impressive on entrances coming right on the heels of choral movements.

The St. John Passion includes a great deal of dialog between the Evangelist and Jesus, sung Saturday night by David Kimock. Pilate, dramatically sung by Devin Mariman, appeared in the second part, which was also when the choral activity heated up.

As with other Bach dramatic works, commentary of emotions was provided by vocal soloists, in this case drawn from the ranks of Fuma Sacra. Soprano Clara Rottsolk had two of the choicest bits of the evening: the appealing “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” and the fiery “Zerschmettert mich,” originally intended for tenor soloist. Ms. Rottsolk presented “Ich folge dir” with lightness and clarity, joined by a pair of flutes played by John Lane and Barbara Williams. “Zerschmettert” was a bear of an aria, sung by Ms. Rottsolk with brilliance through the very high register. Despite a distance problem (and an intervening pulpit), Ms. Rottsolk (as well as the other soloists) communicated well with conductor Dr. Megill in phrases musically drawn out.

Bach saved his most dramatic aria for the alto voice, in this case mezzo Alyson Harvey. “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is finished”), accompanied by viola da gamba (played by Ms. Barton) was stark and full of desolation, concluding briefly with a reminder that “the hero of Judah triumphs with power.” Both Ms. Harvey and Ms. Barton brought the severity of this aria to life, complemented by Ms. Harvey’s clarity on the runs of the second part.

Soprano Rebecca Mariman sang with a lighter voice than fellow soprano Ms. Rottsolk, and was especially adept at singing very high notes with a stylistic straighter tone. Tenors Ryan Board and Tim Hodges sang their respective arias with both decisiveness and sensitivity, as did baritones Matthew Knickman and Timothy Wilds, especially on vocal runs. The Festival Orchestra compiled for this concert was solid and concise, with almost all players providing expressive obbligato accompaniment to the arias.

Placing the Passion within a liturgical context gave the audience some sense of a church atmosphere from the 1720s. In both the opening and closing hymns, there was a slight delay between the organ and the choral singing, a problem with which Bach no doubt had to cope in his own churches. Including a motet and chorale precludes at the appropriate times made the concert a bit long, but brought Westminster’s Bach Festival to a solid close.

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