Cantatas and serenades

Two local ensembles joined forces this weekend, as Bach Aria Soloists and the Kansas City Chorale performed collaborative works including cantatas by Bach and Britten and a soothing serenade by Vaughan Williams.

Although many arts organizations have already brought their seasons to an end, Bach Aria Soloists offered one more event to close its 2017–18 season, this time joined by the Kansas City Chorale under the direction of Charles Bruffy. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was full this past Saturday with an audience not only seeking air conditioning but also an evening of exceptional music by two highly acclaimed local ensembles.

The program began with Bach’s Trio Sonata in C Major, BWV 1037, for two violins and continuo. Balance and blend between the two soloists (Elizabeth Suh Lane and Destiny Mermagen) was good overall, although there were some moments in which the sound came across as heavy and arduous, particularly in the Alla breve and Largo movements. Elisa Williams Bickers, harpsichord, and Michael Mermagen, cello, were wonderful together as the continuo, maintaining a lightness in the Alla breve and Gigue, and creating a heartbreaking depth in the slow movements, especially with the use of the harpsichord’s lute stop in the Largo. In the Gigue, the performers lifted after phrases together with a unity that added a great deal of charm to the movement.

Continuing with works by Bach, a soprano cantata followed: Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199. The text by poet Georg Christian Lehms is a personal story of redemption—in the first person, even—journeying from anguish to joy. This performance featured a string quartet (Elizabeth Suh Lane and Destiny Mermagen, violin; Ashley Stanfield, viola; and Michael Mermagen, cello) with Bickers on harpsichord, foregoing the use of any woodwinds, whose parts could still be heard in the strings. Lindsey Lang, soprano, was dark and emotive in the opening recitative and aria, and her embellishments were clean and clear. Performing a majority of the work following Lang’s opening performance was BAS member Sarah Tannehill Anderson, soprano. Anderson was brighter and more straightforward in her interpretation, which worked for the final expressions of delight, though some of her larger leaps felt more forced than organic. This choice to split the soprano part was presumably done to save voice for the second half of the program, but the change in soloists, particularly in an aria divided by phrases, took away from the text’s progression and story. Supportive and unobtrusive of the voices, the quartet maintained a solid and blended foundation, although I would have preferred some more finesse in the would-be oboe solos.

The Kansas City Chorale took over the second half of the program, transitioning from a Bach soprano cantata to Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30, a cantata by English composer Benjamin Britten. Composed in 1943, the text comes from Jubilo Agno by Christopher Smart, an 18th-century English poet who wrote in a state of “religious mania” while held in an asylum. The poem is certainly peculiar, and Britten’s musical setting of the words is fitting. (This work has become one of my go-tos for listening this year due to its bizarre lyrics and quirky musical moments that always take me by surprise when set as background music.) Unison lines by the Chorale were incredible throughout this performance as were the sweet and soothing iterations of “Hallelujah,” during which the dotted rhythms were precise and flowed with ease. During a more solemn and political section regarding Smart’s abuse by the police, the musical direction was intensified when moving from eerie unison lines into dark, dramatic harmonies that emphasized the haunting nature of the events.

Anderson was brilliant as she sang of the pious cat, Jeoffry, singing with a sense of intimate innocence, as if she were telling the listener an exciting secret. Declaring the courageous nature of the mouse, Katherine Crawford, alto, sang with a distinguished air during and took some time with the phrase “an honorable disposition,” which added to the relative absurdity of the moment. The slow and relaxed pacing during the tenor solo by David Adams emphasized the advice to stop and smell the roses. Paul Davidson, bass, took the most liberty with time during his recitative, allowing his rich voice to linger for dramatic effect while the organ’s pedal tones seemed to gently shake the room at the end of phrases. During each of these solo sections, Bickers on organ, was attentive to the changes of character, embodying the characteristics of the animals and the shifting moods of the text. A particular descending line after the bass solo ripped through the church with such vigor and intensity that I couldn’t contain a slight giggle of excitement.

After completing the journey that is Rejoice in the Lamb, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music gave the audience a moment to revel in the beauty of the dreamy music and text. Taking from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the words consider the effects of music and the music of the spheres, and the music is appropriately sweeping and fantastical. This piano reduction of the original orchestral score, performed by Bickers, added a more intimate element to the piece, and Lane’s violin solos, though often too loud and straightforward, helped to create a dreamlike state for the words to more fully resonate. One of the most fascinating aspects of this piece is that Vaughan Williams wrote for a chorus of 16 solo vocalists, giving each performer at least one opportunity to stand out. After hearing some incredible unison singing in the prior work, hearing each personal tone and style was fascinating, revealing of the singers’ skills to transition between these individual moments and the marvelous sounds created by the KC Chorale.

To finish the program, Dark Night of the Soul by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo was its own adventure, alternating between high-energy sections of compound meter to match the text’s urgency, and a lush tranquility that invited both stillness and wonder. Anderson floated in and out of the full chorus with soaring interjections that she allowed to be part of the bigger picture instead of a spotlight on her line. As the ensemble repeated and emphasized the phrase “Ah, the sheer grace” in a style more aligned to a post-minimalist style, Bickers came through with contrasting lines in the piano and guided the sustains with scalar thematic material that resulted in a wonderful sensation by the end that felt like falling into one’s own bed after a long and wild journey.

While I would have liked to have heard some earlier collaborative works in the mix, the collective efforts by Bach Aria Soloists and the Kansas City Chorale were well received by those in attendance. One can only hope that these two local ensembles will continue to work together and present wonderful works in the future.

Bach Aria Soloists and the Kansas City Chorale
Saturday, June 16, 2018
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
11 E 40th St., Kansas City, MO
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