The Baroque Beat

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 in Culture

The Baroque Beat

Peter Frewen, conductor of the Oratorio Chorale

by Gina Hamilton

BRUNSWICK -- The Oratorio Chorale has been blessing the Portland and midcoast areas for 38 years now, and this season, they are featuring world music.  But there's still time to produce some good old-fashioned chorale works from the Baroque era, and this weekend, they demonstrated why they are known as the "Oratorio" chorale.  They performed with the Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The works in question were J.S. Bach's Mass in g-minor (also known as the Lutheran Mass), the Vivaldi Gloria, and Handel's Foundling Hospital Anthem. 

J.S. Bach spent most of his life in tiny Leipzig, Germany, where he wrote hundreds of pieces of music for the church he worked for.  His duties were varied ... teaching boys to sing and play instruments, writing a cantata for every Sunday in the liturgical year, and also larger works, including the Lutheran mass and at least three other masses which have survived to the present day (there may be many others), the holiday oratorios, and his two great passions.  Somewhere along the way, he found time to write his "puff" pieces, such as the Goldberg variations, the Art of the Fugue, the two and three part inventions, the six motets, and the Brandenberg concertos, among others.  Bach is far and away the most prolific of composers.

The g-minor Mass doesn't have the catchiness of a cantata series, designed to highlight and challenge bright boy voices, or the contrapunctal brilliance of the Art of the Fugue.  It is a workman's piece for a specific need ... some Sunday mass when some dignitary was in residence, or something along those lines.  But when the workman in question is Bach, well, it's still amazing.

Containing three solos, sung by bass John D. Adams, alto Jennifer Carol Hansen, and tenor Timothy Neill Johnson, the mass is deep and dark, and even though it reuses pieces from earlier cantatas, it reflects his interests at the time in his life (it was premiered initially between 1736 and 1739, closef to the end of Bach's life, when he was finalizing and polishing his fugue forms).  The Cum Sancto Spiritu, the choral masterpiece at the end of the mass, is a study in fugal counterpoint.  The other two choral movements, the Kyrie and the Gloria, were lifted, almost entirely, by Bach from an early cantata, and they definitely have the boy-choir feel that cantatas usually have.  The choir, in response, kept their voices pure and light, with the female voices avoiding any vibrato for those two movements. 

Although the g-minor mass is not one of this reviewer's favorites, the Chorale and the soloists definitely provided a sense of what it would be like to be hearing this work in the mid-18th century, and it was good to hear a little-known or played Bach mass by a superior Chorale.

By contrast, the Vivaldi Gloria was simply glorious.  The Gloria, also written for boy's voices, in fact used two young boy sopranos (Aaron Dustin and Dana Hinchliffe, both aged 12) for the delightful Laudamus Te movement; Dustin also sang the Domine Deus aria.  Jennifer Carol Hansen sang the alto solos.  The two children show much promise, and we look forward to hearing them again.  Hansen, a consummate professional, is a joy to hear whenever she appears with the Oratorio Chorale.

The bright happiness of the Gloria, with its sweet oboe pieces and brilliant Cum Sancto Spiritu movement, was definitely caught by the Chorale, who sailed through the most difficult and complex movements, the Et in Terra Pax, difficult because breathing is hard to come by in the slow, stately movement. 

We enjoyed it so much that we hate to bring up any criticism at all; however, there were times on Saturday night when the Ensemble and Chorale (and one point when the alto soloist and the Ensemble) weren't in sync.  Possibly the two groups could benefit from more rehearsal time together for major pieces such as the Gloria. 

The final piece on the menu was the Foundling Hospital Anthem, a piece written for the opening of London's Foundling Hospital, by Handel in 1749.  It was a charity concert, and so the vocals are full of praise for those who donate, sympathy for the children, and thanks for support.  Much of the work comes from Biblical references, but the final movement, a direct steal from the Messiah, is the Hallelujah Chorus.  As part of the piece, the Oratorio Chorale exhorted us to help support a charity for children in Haiti, whose representatives were in the lobby.  Aaron Dustin performed a short solo, as did Timothy Neill Johnson. 

The next production will be Hausmusik, a Vocal Solo Quartet, wth the music of Brahms, Schumann, Faure and Copeland, on Sunday, April 1 at Falmouth Congregational Church at 1 p.m.  This will be a special concert to benefit the Chorale.  And remember, in the words of Handel (through King David), "The Charitable shall be had in everlasting remembrance".

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