Concert Review (NYC): American Classical Orchestra and ACO Chorus – ‘RENEW’, Music by Johann Sebastian Bach (April 5, 2022)
I’ve heard and written about Thomas Crawford and the American Classical Orchestra (ACO) often enough that I think I wouldn’t need to say how good this ensemble of period instruments is. Just a few months ago they played Mozart on instruments of the type the composer would have composed for. So who better than the ACO to bring us JS Bach on period instruments?
Four centuries old, but universal and timeless
On April 5, the orchestra, the ACO Choir and a handful of wonderful soloists delivered precise and inspiring interpretations of Bach’s most famous motet, Jesus, my Freudand his Easter Oratorio. Glorified by the superb acoustics of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, this four-century-old religious music has transcended its religious origins and become both universal and timeless.
The further back you go in the history of music, the more instructive it is to hear performances on period instruments. Music from the 17th century and earlier is often played on instruments that are out of fashion – violas da gamba instead of modern cellos and violins, for example. Much of the soul of a medium’s music has to do with the specific sounds that audiences would have heard at the time.
But when you get to Bach and the 18th century, you most often hear the music on modern instruments. In the case of Bach in particular. Firstly, because it is played everywhere and by just about every trained musician in the western world (and far beyond), and modern instruments are naturally what most musicians know how to play.
Second, because his music has proven to be almost infinitely transcribable. What if a piece was originally written for the harpsichord? We’ve probably heard him on piano, synthesizer, guitar, mandolin and who knows what else, enjoying him as much as his first listeners. In fact, Bach expected much of his music to be transcribed and not enslaved to a single instrument.
Vintage instruments kept alive by dedicated musicians for the benefit of all
That said, in the case of Bach’s orchestral music, and especially his choral masterpieces, playing period instruments adds to the experience. The softer timbre of the gut strings, the bright, silvery tone of the baroque trumpets, the warmth of the baroque oboe d’amore, the tighter boom of the small timpani – all of this helps to create a sense of intimacy even in a large hall. modern concert hall.
Intimacy also derives from the presence of a relatively small ensemble and choir, and soloists adept at context-sensitive dynamic control. The ACO Bach concert had it all.
Counterpoint, as Maestro Crawford demonstrated to musicians and singers in a brief pre-conference, is ubiquitous in Bach’s music. A superb example came late in the motet, when soprano, alto and tenor soloists gently filed away Bach’s counterpoint in the “Gute Nacht” section.
The final, hymn-like track banished “gloomy spirits” with solemn beauty, a fine setup for the Easter oratory. This great work should be scheduled more often. It begins with a fanfare awakening led by the trumpets, in this case pistonless baroque trumpets. Further on there are major contributions from oboe and arias for soprano (Chloe Holgate), tenor (Lawrence Jones) and alto (Helen Karloski). All of these soloists delivered clear and skillful performances, as did baritone Steven Eddy in his star moments.
Holgate’s aria relies on a complex counterpoint between the voice and a solo instrument, in this case the violin (changed at the last minute due to the absence of a flautist). Similarly, Karloski’s and Jones’ tunes feature the woodwinds. All were executed in the superlative.
Karloski brought the open timbre of a mezzo-soprano (which it is) to the alto tune. This contrasted with the more subdued tone of the excellent alto singer in the choir, who had mingled admirably with Holgate and Jones in the motet. As Crawford mentioned in his introduction, Bach was known for giving prominent airs to the alto voice, not to mention including it in counterpoint. This evening showed how a mezzo or a pure alto can perform these parts effectively.
It’s also a real treat to hear the ACO Chorus. For these occasions, Crawford assembled a small group of singers who would surely have made Bach proud. They blended seamlessly with the orchestra, singing with both the precision and devotional character that this eternal music demands – “devotional” in this context meaning with devotion to the ineffable music itself. And again, the small size of the choir adds to the feeling of intimacy.
The ACO itself is a relatively small orchestra. But there was nothing diminutive about these magical performances.
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