Basically Bach

at First United Church of Oak Park

January 8

Basically Bach’s recent performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio represent the first time the work has been heard in Chicago on period instruments, although Music of the Baroque has performed the work on modern instruments twice that I recall, once about ten years ago, and then last year, when it was used as the basis for that group’s New York debut at Lincoln Center.

Basically Bach remains the only performing ensemble in the area that is exclusively devoted to performing works of the Baroque era. I say this to point out the fact that, despite Music of the Baroque and the City Musick, this era is still largely neglected and unknown here. True, Thomas Wikman of Music of the Baroque gives us a handful of works by Bach and Handel each season, but his approach, as much as I admire and enjoy what he does, is totally rooted in 19th-century performance practices. He does it so well that it works, but my own ears are getting less and less tolerant of operatically trained voices hacking away at this music with their wobbly vibratos and tentative sense of line. Elaine Scott Banks’s approach with the City Musick is actually a hybrid of 18th- and 19th-century performance practices. The instruments and tempi are more or less 18th-century, but voice styles of both centuries are mixed together and interpretations are often of the post-Berlioz era.

Moreover, Music of the Baroque and City Musick are performing fewer Baroque scores as they perform more scores from the Classical era. The phenomenal success of recordings of music of Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven on period instruments has meant a steady increase in attempts at live performances of this music by period-instrument ensembles. City Musick very cleverly picked up on this and began programming that music in abundance, Music of the Baroque also decided to get in on the act, and is now regularly scheduling concerts of Classical music–on modern instruments. Don’t be at all surprised to see Music of the Baroque venture into Beethoven, much as City Musick did last fall.

How far can this go? Early-music enthusiasts who routinely blast groups such as the Chicago Symphony for stodgy, Romantic performances of Baroque and Classical music are now applying 18th-century performance techniques to music from the 19th and even 20th centuries. City Musick has already tentatively announced fall performances of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

The effect of these more “ecumenical” repertoires is that Baroque music, and Bach in particular, is now being heard here less than in the past. Given the confusion, it is refreshing to see a group that has a clearly expressed identity and sticks to it–Basically Bach remains, well, basically Bach.

Whatever discussions of “art for art’s sake” we may get into in our own century, Bach never composed music without a fee–or at least without a very practical purpose (obtaining a better job, teaching his children)–in mind. Bach did not live to compose, he composed to live. One need not turn to Bach’s life to understand his music, for his music was his life, and he was always extremely practical about it–constantly recycling and rearranging his older pieces for new circumstances and performances.

Bach spent the last half of his life in a single position–that of cantor of Saint Thomas’s Church and School in Leipzig, where he produced the majority of his greatest masterpieces under the watchful eye of superiors who hadn’t the faintest awareness of, nor appreciation for, his unparalleled gifts. In addition to teaching music, Latin, and theology to the unruly schoolboys, he was also expected to perform bed checks in the dormitory, file disciplinary reports, and compose and direct all the music for town weddings, funerals, royal visits, city-council events, and Sunday worship services.

18th-century German Lutheran worship services were literally all-morning affairs. The Leipzig services included biblical readings, hymn singing, organ preludes and postludes, a long and dramatic sermon, and a musical cantata for vocal soloists, orchestra, and chorus based on the lesson for that day. The formula that Bach used for these cantatas remained fairly standard: several chorales, which were his own unique harmonizations of familiar church hymns or religious melodies; choruses; recitatives, which related that day’s biblical or sacred text; and arias, which stopped the story to meditate on a particular message.

This formula is operative in Bach’s glorious Christmas Oratorio, the label that Bach attached to his series of six cantatas written for and performed during the Christmas season of 1734. Advent was an austere, penitent time when no music could be played, so Bach wanted the first sounds of Christmas to be particularly jubilant–blazing forth with trumpets, timpani, and chorus. The Oratorio’s first three cantatas were performed on the first three days of Christmas. They are based on the story of Jesus’s birth according to the Gospel of Luke, and center on the manger and the angelic announcement to the shepherds. The last three cantatas were performed on New Year’s Day, the Sunday after New Year’s, and Epiphany (January 6), and concentrate on Matthew’s story of Herod, the Magi, and the wandering star.

Performing the complete work in a single evening is a herculean task for any ensemble, but an invaluable experience for the listener, who is taken through an array of Christmas colors, timbres, and textures–all bearing the unique and unmistakable stamp of Bach’s genius. Basically Bach’s music director Daniel Robinson is keenly aware of this and evenly paced the work. Rather than dividing the six cantatas in half to create two long, 90-minute marathons, Robinson led each section to its natural conclusion, pausing for applause, reflection, and of course, tuning. The fact that the program printed both the complete German text and an English translation (sadly, a rare occurrence these days–the Ravinia Festival is the only other local organization that still does this) made following the work a breeze for the audience, and the fact that each section’s text was printed across a double page meant no page-turning noises during the performance.

Robinson has a wonderful sense of Bach’s structure on macro and micro levels, and is able to effectively communicate this to his ensemble, made up of both local and east-coast period instrumentalists. The string section, led by concertmistress Nancy Wilson, was by far the standout, having a lovely, warm tone, and, for the most part, responding as a unit with fewer intonation and pitch problems than in the past.

The major offenders, predictably, were the natural-trumpet players, who seemed to never miss a chance to break up a line or miss a note; the opening and closing sections of the work were seriously marred by this. By contrast, the horn players played very accurately and expressively.

Much has been made of the trio of oboes that Bach employs throughout the oratorio, not only the familiar oboe d’amore, but the seldom heard oboe da caccia that Nikolaus Harnoncourt “reinvented” in the early 1970s for the first recording of this work on period instruments. Their use in this performance revealed Bach’s use of wind color, which bears little resemblance to modern wind color–the earlier instruments having a richer and deeper tone, and a more open, less pinched sound. There is much solo-wind writing in the oratorio, most of which was brought off nicely, although as a trio the oboes had trouble keeping in pitch.

It often seemed that the ensemble was rushing to keep up with Robinson, whose tempi were quite convincing, but whose vision of the piece is obviously ahead of what his ensemble was capable of producing. The concertmistress and the continuo section (well led by City Musick’s John Rozendaal) were two anchors, but what fell in between was often ragged.

The best thing about this performance was the high quality of the vocal soloists, each with a timbre and technique appropriate to Bach’s music. The evangelist, David Gordon, communicated the sacred action of the work with great power and tenderness, although he seemed to wane as the performance progressed and some of the last tenor arias came off a bit breathy. Countertenor Steven Rickards was in superb voice, offering many of the evening’s finest highlights, especially his moving rendition of “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (sleep, my dearest Jesus).

Soprano Carol Loverde was ill and was replaced by Johana Arnold, who did an outstanding job in the solo soprano sections, although she was overpowered by bass Andrew Schultze in the duet sections. Schultze himself seemed to have a cold, flu, or some upper respiratory infection that gave a slight cackle to his usually smooth bass sound and solid technique.

The biggest disappointment was the chorus. Although Robinson did an admirable job in matching voice timbres within the sections (there were no wobbling sopranos or budding Pavarottis), the sections themselves were very weak; they projected little and didn’t blend well together, and their words were often unidentifiable. Much work is needed here, which is difficult to understand given the abundance of outstanding singers in this area. One wonders if a collaboration between Basically Bach and an a cappella group such as His Majestie’s Clerkes wouldn’t be in order.

Still, the performance had considerable vision, and if done a few times, tighter execution would be the result. Handel’s Messiah is heard every year in myriad performances. What a wonderful alternative it would be to have an annual period-instrument Christmas Oratorio as well, so that performers and audiences could benefit from the revelations that would come from the regular return to this flawless masterpiece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Ziv.