A casual glance around us these days could tend to have us all disparaging about the state of the world…. And so it was both refreshing and spiritually satisfying to take in two most incredible performances of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach these past two weeks; somehow it put things in perspective and gave me reason to be hopeful.
On Saturday evening, April 30, the nearly 200 voice Crane Chorus and pared down 50 piece Crane Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of the Mass In B Minor that was nothing short of inspiring! Helmuth Rilling was at the helm directing the entire event with confidence, never missing a cue and important vocal line or an instrumental moment; and, I might add, completely from memory! The Crane School of Music’s “Spring Festival” is an annual event and has been for some time, funded by the combined effort of the Dorothy Albrecht Gregory Visiting Conductor Fund and the Adeline Maltzan Crane Chorus Performance Tour Fund, and established by Dr. Gary C. Jaquay. This annual event has brought distinguished choral conductors to this campus for many years and continues to be an inspiring experience for all the students involved. Maestro Rilling decided to bring his own soloists for this performance, and after hearing Julia Sophie Wagner, Soprano, Sophie Harmsen, Mezzo-Soprano, Nicholas Phan, Tenor and Christopheren Nomura, Baritone, there is no doubt that these soloists are among some of the best singers available; poised, exceptional musicianship and dripping with vocal technique, they all managed the difficult solo work with the ease of an experienced and seasoned performer (none of them appeared to be over 30)!
There is little need to go into a discussion of this masterwork and the masterful writing that Bach displays. Indeed, this Masterwork contains so many moments of supreme genius that it would be impossible to give it justice here, and I do not have the intellectual equipment to freely write about it anyway. But in light of the comments I stated at the beginning of this article, I experienced something very unique and special and life changing that evening. There was an honesty and integrity that would be difficult to articulate but was very much in abundance during this performance. Helmuth Rilling has this work figured out and was able to communicate with complete confidence, ease and understanding; the Crane Chorus responded to his efforts with enthusiasm and a level of vocal prowess and ensemble that is not often heard. The difficult melismatic passage work that rears its head constantly in this music was handled easily (actually, I am sure it took a great deal of work and practice!). Rilling did not hold back on tempos; they were brisk and aggressive. Phrasing and matters of musicianship were attended to, and at times I really felt that the essence of this music was speaking to us, literally jumping off the page; moments of great beauty that seemed to flow from Rilling’s gestures to the chorus and back to the audience. This was music making of the highest order, with mostly excellent playing from the instrumentalists and some truly amazing instrumental playing in the solo movements.
All these students were totally engaged, and judging from the Maestro’s acknowlegements and demeanor on stage after the performance, he was exceedingly pleased. In return, the Crane performing forces were proud of their accomplishment and eager to show Rilling how much they appreciated his presence on campus. There is great pride in the Crane School of Music these days, and rightfully so. This was, for me, an event that I will not forget. Bravo to all that were involved in this most gratifying evening of music. And of course another bravo for Jeffrey Francom, the Music Director and probably the person that prepared the chorus for Rilling.
And no less impressive was the Middlebury Bach Festival Concert in Mead Chapel on Saturday night, May 8. This first annual event was the brainchild of Jeff Buetner and Jessica Allen, and judging from the large audience and their enthusiasm, everyone appreciated what was taking place.
The Middlebury Bach Festival was a three day event that featured sessions on many different aspects of Bach’s output; Emory Fanning on the Chorale Preludes for Organ, Larry Hamberlin on the Brandedbury Concerto No. 3, recitals, a session on singing Bach, and most impressive to me, the presence of Christoph Wolff and lectures on Bach the person and other topics. A few recitals filled the three days, ending with the performance that I attended Saturday night (at which Mr. Wolff spoke briefly but eloquently about Bach and his music).
The concert was wonderful, filled with the great music of this master. The Brandenburg Concerto #3 was spirited and, at least for me, just plain fun. These concertos are infectious and filled with such masterful writing for strings; this performance was incredibly good, with many local players involved. The Bach Festival Singers, filled with many local singers including Jeff and Jessica, sang the Bach motet “Singet dem Herrn” with great enthusiasm and precision; 4 singers in each choir, eight singers in total. It was transparent, well executed and beautifully done. They joined the Middlebury College Choir for Cantata 191, and ended with the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from the B Minor Mass.
I do hope this Festival is continued and expanded upon in future years, and in particular I hope that Christoph Wolff will be invited back for some lectures. His book on Bach, “Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician” is considered to be one of the most important one volume Bach biographies to have been written, and he is undoubtedly one of the most important Bach Scholars of our time. Had I known ahead of time I would have tried to have made his lecture, but won’t make the same mistake again!
Bravo to the Crane School of Music and to Middlebury College for giving us all the opportunity to escape our reality for a little while. I find that after leaving these performances I have a clearer sense of purpose and an appreciation of what it is to be a musician. Great music raises us all, and Bach does this better than most. The final paragraph in Patrick Kavanaugh’s short discussion of the spiritual life of Bach states: “Bach’s devotion to God and his drive to express that devotion musically gave the world a gift for all to appreciate. His productivity forged a musical legacy which Richard Wagner would someday appraise as the most stupendous miracle in all music. ” If this is indeed true, than these two colleges gave us reason to pause and contemplate the greater meaning of life, and I am grateful for that opportunity.