Review: Best of Bach with the Oratorio Chorale

Posted Friday, March 6, 2015 in Culture

Review: Best of Bach with the Oratorio Chorale

by Gina Hamilton

BRUNSWICK -- Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday is in late March, and it's not unusual to see a nod to his greatness on musical programs at this time of year, just as one might see a Mozart program in January.

The problem everyone who chooses to do a program like this is to determine what the "best" of a composer as prolific as Bach can be.

Bach, over his long life, wrote A total of 1,126 musical works for sure, which are listed in the complete Bach catalog (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or BWV). An additional nearly 200 are listed in another catalog, attributed to Bach but unable to be verified. And then there are pieces he is known to have composed which cannot be found.

Of his known works, well more than 200 were cantatas, mostly written for church services at Leipzig's Thomaskirche, where he spent most of his life. He wrote two "passions" -- The St. John and the indomitable St. Matthew Passions, and sacred motets.

Bach also wrote a number of secular works, including the Brandenberg Concertos and the Goldberg variations, the Art of the Fugue, a series of dances, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and two and three part inventions for those who were learning the harpsichord or organ -- no piano yet in those early days.

All of his work was done in the polyphonic style of the Baroque period, using a device called counterpoint, in which each of the lines forms a perfect harmony for the other lines. It's not an easy thing to do, but Bach did it at least 1,126 times, perfectly.

So how do you choose?

The Oratorio Chorale chose to perform the Bach Magnificat, the "Song of Mary", using the text that Mary is said to have uttered when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, not long after conceiving Jesus. Elizabeth was pregnant with St. John the Baptist at the time. It is a work for full choir with several soloists -- bass, tenor, alto, and soprano. They also performed a selection of motets and a solo and two duets from some of the cantatas, and two instrumental pieces -- Brandenberg Concerto 5, and the Double Violin Concerto in D minor.

It was an incredibly densely packed program, and filled the venue -- appropriately, St. John the Baptist Church in Brunswick -- almost to capacity, which is a particularly difficult thing to do, since the building is huge.

The motets, Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (BWV 230) and Komm, Jesu, Komm (BWV 229) featured the choir accompanied only by continuo -- that is, the figured bass line -- performed by John Corrie on harpsichord and Christina Chute and Ben Noyes on cello.

The solo and duets from the cantatas included the male duet Der Herr Segne euch (May the Lord bless you), performed by tenor Stefan Reed and bass Bradford Gleim, Gloria Patri et Filio et Spritui Sancto (Glory to the father and the son and the holy spirit), performed by soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Stefan Reed, tenor, and accompanied by Nicole Rabata on flute. The Allelujah was performed by Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Betty Rines on trumpet.

The Brandenberg 5 featured John Corrie on harpsichord, Dean Stein on violin and Krysia Tripp on flute.

The double violin concerto in D minor featured Robert Lehmann and Yasmin Craig Vitalius on violin.

Soloists in the Magnificat included Tengblad, Gleim and Reed, as well as Emily Marvosh, alto. Kathleen McNerney played oboe, and Tripp and Rabata played flute.

Despite the chill, the music spanning the centuries sparkled in the lovely old church, and transported the audience back more than 300 years in time, to another cold church in the German winter, where Bach composed his great works. As conductor Emily Isaacson said, "One could easily spend days listening to the Best of Bach."

Somehow, a 2 1/2 hour program only scratched the surface. The choir and soloists were in excellent voice, and the Maine Chamber Orchestra performed beautifully. But it was the music itself, the marvelous music of a long-dead genius, that brought everyone out on that frigid day and gave the Oratorio Chorale the biggest audience we have ever seen.

We hope the Chorale will perform more of Bach's exquisite works in the future.

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