The American Classical Orchestra marks the season of Lent with Bach’s “Easter Oratorio”
Christian Holy Week brings many musical celebrations, including JS Bach’s Dramatic Passions, which recount and meditate on the events of Good Friday and the death of Jesus.
The 40-minute work that Bach compiled as his Easter Oratorio doesn’t match those mighty epics in breadth and depth, but it does contain plenty of engaging, celebratory music, as demonstrated Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall, when the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus performed the performed with a favorite Bach motet, Jesus, meine Freude, BWV 227.
Performed under the general title “Renew”, the two pieces offered contrasting responses to death and grief. Composed like funeral music, the motet carried a message of comfort, even defiance, despite the mournful character of its descending chorale melody in a minor key. The oratorio, brilliant with trumpets and timpani, declared victory over Jesus’ death at the empty tomb.
Before leading his ensemble of period instruments in the motet, the orchestra’s founder and artistic director, Thomas Crawford, gave a mini-lecture – a bit difficult to hear in Tully Hall without amplification – on how the music was assembled. Players and singers illustrated at the right time with excerpts from their games while Crawford explained concepts such as fugue, obligato and texting. It wasn’t long before the impatience to hear real music set in.
When the motet finally started, the idea came up that maybe the rehearsal time to prepare for the speech could have been better spent cleaning up the entries and the textures, so that all those topics, countertopics, and patterns could emerge. clearly in the interpretation, not just the lecture.
The string and continuo ensemble, following historical practice, doubled the vocal parts, adding their bright timbre but contributing little to the attack or articulation.
Chorale settings and elaborations alternated with biblical texts in freer, more contrapuntal sections – though it would be difficult for listeners to know, since the latter were omitted from the printed “Texts and Translations”, leaving than the chorale stanzas. The oratorio texts were entirely missing from the program book. Whatever the reason – administrative mess or budgetary constraints – following the lyrics while listening to the music was not an option at this concert.
The sound of the 14-member choir – singing five vocal lines, SSATB – tended to exhibit a penetrating timbre in the Soprano I part. The reason became clear when soprano Chloe Holgate stepped forward to join a trio of soloists for the “Denn das Gesetz” movement. Although far from being a purist of vibrato-free early music, Holgate used a clear, straight tone that flexed and tapered beautifully, here and in his later solo in the oratorio.
If the motet movements could have used more rhythmic vitality to bring out their distinct character, the trumpets and drums provided plenty in the opening and closing movements of the Easter oratory. Baroque trumpeters Steven Marquart, John Thiessen and Perry Sutton blared when called upon and gave the ensemble an understated brassy glow the rest of the time. Under Dan Haskins’ deft drumsticks, the little baroque timpani sounded rich, not thwacky.
Oboists Gonzalo Ruiz and Sarah Davol gave the Sinfonia opener a refreshing bite before returning to a soft dance in the movement episode. However, intonation issues occasionally plagued them in later movements.
the flauti dolci (recorders) by Nina Stern and Daphna Mor cast a dolcissimo spell over Peter’s blessed sleep in the aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer”, but not without intonation problems.
After the Sinfonia and a lively Adagio with solo oboe, the “action” of the oratorio consists mainly of a staging chorus with soloists, followed by very brief recitatives to introduce the two women and the two disciples who meet at the empty tomb, before each of them reflects on the event in a tune.
Soprano Holgate gently shaped James’ mother Mary’s meditation on the soul’s triumph over death, as Keats Dieffenbach rose from his concertmaster chair to play a silvery, ornate violin obbligato.
Floating on this cloud of dreamy recorders, the clear but substantial tenor of Lawrence Jones as Peter transported easily, as he imagined how blessed the sleep of death would be when wrapped in the shroud of Jesus.
Alto Helen Karloski portrayed Mary Magdalene’s urgent search for Jesus in well-articulated quavers and in a pleasingly light and direct tone.
Although Bach did not give it an aria, baritone Steven Eddy as John was faithful to the recitatives, notably the one (‘Wir sind erfreut’) which introduced the work’s triumphant final chorus.
With economical gestures, conductor Crawford conducted a well-balanced and well-paced performance that could have used more of the transparency and rhythmic verve that listeners expect from ensembles of period instruments such as this. But the opportunity to hear a lesser-known Bach work from Lent is always welcome.
The American Classical Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Crawford, will perform “The Chaconne Project”, with mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Peraza, in music by Strozzi, Marais, Corelli, Bach, Couperin, Monteverdi, Purcell and others, at 7 p.m. June in Harlem Parish, 258 W. 118th Street. aconyc.org.