The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Brings Us Bach

John Harbison Selects Unfamiliar Cantatas

By: - Dec 07, 2011

bach bach bach bach bach

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Bach Cantatas 12, 168, 163, 72
December 6, 2011
David Finckel and Wu Han, Artistic Directors
John Harbison, Program Director
Erin Morley, soprano; Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Eric Owens, bass.
Michael Beattie, harpsichord,organ; Yura Lee, violin; Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Beth Guterman, viola; Mark Holloway, viola; Timothy Eddy, cello; Fred Sherry, cello; Timothy Cobb, double bass.

This is the season to be jolly, but in our perilous times, Bach, the thinker, the wrestler, the challenger, feels just right in his fierce and wrenching effort to grapple with a greater power through music.  Bach's music, of course, is itself a greater power. 

Composer and conductor, John Harbison, whose awards include the MacArthur and the Pulitzer Prizes, assembled this program.  He served as an interim director of Emanuel Music in Boston for two years and continues as a principal guest conductor.  One of the missions of Emanuel is to perform Bach cantatas, all 200 of them, and they have completed the cycle twice. 

Wu Han, an artistic director of the CMS and with her husband recent recipient of Music America’s Musician of the Year award, writes in an introduction to this program that the cantatas…display variety, imagination, and innovation that easily rival…the astounding output of Silicon Valley in the last decade.

Accustomed as we are to the B Minor Mass and Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, whose sheer majesty is daunting, the Cantata 12 wrong foots.  There is the repetitive bass, which sounds more like Philip Glass whose work on Gandhi has been presented recently across the way.  Bach chose the poetry of Salamo Franck, to whom he would return as a comfortable collaboration, for the arias and recitatives.  We have a repetition in four words: weeping, crying, sobbing, sighing.  Half the program was sung translated to English.  The other half in its original German.  Cantata 12 is one of the few Bach pieces that risks falling apart to reveal the intensity of the uncertain condition of faith. 

Phyllis Pancella, stepping into the alto roles at the last minute, was a revelation.  Her voice is strikingly rich and eloquent up and down the range, and particularly revealing in the lower registers.  The yearning, questioning, lines of Bach were delivered with a full-bodied beauty. 

Erin Morley is a young soprano with a delicate and yet evocative voice.  As she warmed through the evening and wrapped her voice around the German language, the flavor of her take became luxurious.  John Tessier had a passionate and vivid lyric line as he sang. 

Eric Owens can do anything.  Here, he ranges from the early lines of cantata 12 in which, even though the text accepts the proposed burden of faith, remains a wary query.  His is the first voice to articulate the biting fierceness that we usually associate with Bach’s spiritual journey, no easy path, but one that requires the muscle and fight Bach offers.  Certainly as he sang the first aria of Cantata 168, you heard the familiar declamatory, deep annunciatory tone of the composer sung at its very best.  Ethan Bensdorf on the trumpet performed as though he was a singer too when he carried parallel and contrasting tunes.  

Appropriation backwards and forwards provided some familiar music, such as a chorale later used in the B Minor Mass.  The round technique of throwing lines from voice to voice, almost fugal, was delightfully apparent in the recitative and duet of Morley and Pancella in Cantata 163.  "Open-hearted and limpid," Harbison remarked. 

Harbison found a connection between 163 and 168.  There are double cellos, the smelting of the coin, a pounding in the music.   In addition to the structural similarities, both cantatas used texts appropriate for the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

Harbison was asked how he could compose when he was constantly faced in his Emanuel assignment with the daunting presence of Bach.  Harbison smiled.  "In the presence of this musical powerhouse, one is in awe, but settling in, Bach inspires instead of inhibiting."  Lyonel Feininger, one of America’s greatest painters of the 20th century, wrote, "Bach has been my master in painting."  Bach is everywhere around us, if only we will take note.  Harbison reports that Bach said anyone could be as good as he was if they worked as hard.   Not likely, smiles Harbison. 

All the instrumentalists were spectacular.  Oboeists Randall Ellis and Stephen Taylor often carried the melody, and Cho-Liang Lin and Yura Lee, so vigorous and passionate on their violins. 

Discovering Bach is one of life’s great pleasures and the CMS has taken one of their characteristic journeys to uncover the great unknown in presenting this cantata evening.  This was not Bach beautiful, although it was a pensive and probing Bach we don’t often hear.   The gifted programmers of the CMS has given us yet another exciting evening of music that seems as present as today.