The musical birthday accolades to scholar and philanthropist William H. Scheide just keep coming in honor of his 100th birthday; the latest was a tribute concert of the Dryden Ensemble presented this past weekend in Solebury, Pennsylvania and Princeton. Sunday afternoon’s performance at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel (the concert was also performed Saturday night in Solebury) was devoted to Bach, paying tribute to both Mr. Scheide’s Bach expertise and his long-time support of the Dryden Ensemble. Nine instrumentalists and four vocalists presented a Bach “CantataFest” — two complete cantatas and several excerpts from other cantatas.
Joining the Dryden Ensemble were four more than excellent singers, each with a long history of Baroque performance practice. Soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith, tenor Jason McStoots, and baritone Mischa Bouvier were individually featured in arias and joined together for the opening and closing chorales of the cantatas. Ms. Wakim demonstrated a glorious top register, quickly finding the optimum resonance of the space in Miller Chapel. She had a real ring to her voice within a Baroque context, elegantly handling melismas on specific words, such as “freundlich” in her opening aria. Ms. Dubenion-Smith sang with a remarkably smooth register, especially in the aria “Wie furchstam wankten meine Schritte” of Bach’s Cantata 33 — an aria loaded with octave skips. Conceived more instrumentally than vocally, Bach’s arias can be difficult for mezzos because of range and register, but not for this mezzo. Ms. Dubenion-Smith handled the tough intervals and figures with a voice as smooth as silk and her Cantata 33 aria was particularly gracefully accompanied by violinist Vita Wallace and Daniel Swenberg playing theorbo.
Tenor Jason McStoots demonstrated a lyrical and lighter sound, singing expressively with clean diction. Mr. McStoots’ aria “Woferne du den edlen Frieden,” from Cantata 41, was a complex dialog between voice and violoncello piccolo, played by Lisa Terry. In this aria the musical roles were almost reversed, with the cello taking on most of the melodic movement and the voice serving in more of an obbligato role. Mr. McStoots also provided a complementary voice to baritone Mr. Bouvier, with whom he sang a duet toward the end of Cantata 33. Mr. Bouvier had his opportunity to shine in the aria excerpt from Cantata 62, “Streite, siege, starker Held.” Mr. Bouvier clearly had the potential for a great deal of vocal firepower, with well-handled and articulate coloratura on the words “Streite” (“struggle”) and “kräftig” (“mighty”). The closing Cantata 97 featured each soloist in an aria, with Ms. Wakim’s voice like icing on the cake over the counterpoint of the other three soloists.
As instrumentalists, the Dryden players stayed true to the Baroque character of the music. The concerto-like opening Sinfonia contained delicate swells in the music with clean trills, with sequential phrases which were always going somewhere. Organist Webb Wiggins provided bell-like passages on a chamber organ and the ensemble as a whole maintained a clean texture, even when at full sound. Ms. Wallace had several opportunities for obbligato playing with one of the vocal soloists, playing especially sensitively in the tenor aria of Cantata 97. Oboists Jane McKinley and Julie Brye provided chipper playing, often in thirds, and were particularly supple in accompanying Ms. Wakim in her Cantata 97 aria. Cellist Lisa Terry, bassoonist Sue Black, theorbo player Mr. Swenberg (also playing Baroque lute) and Mr. Wiggins provided solid continuo playing throughout the performance, allowing each of the instruments to speak well in the space.
The Dryden Ensemble has devoted itself to music of the 17th and early 18th century, and Sunday afternoon’s all-Bach performance was particularly appropriate for its dedication to Mr. Scheide. On first glance, Dryden Ensemble concerts may not seem to have a great number of pieces on the program, but Sunday’s performance was well-informed with nuance, and introduced four great singers to a Princeton audience.
The Dryden Ensemble will present a birthday concert to J.S. Bach on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at Miller Chapel on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary. This concert, in honor of Bach’s 329th birthday, will feature chamber music by Buxtehude, C.P.E. Bach, and J.S. Bach. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting www.drydenensemble.org.