Review: Bach celebration featured composer’s best
By James F. Cotter
For the Times Herald-Record
Posted Feb. 29, 2016 at 9:59 AM
Hudson Opera Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, under the forceful and expert direction of Ron De Fesi, presented “Bachanalia,” an all Bach program, last weekend at the First Presbyterian Church of Monroe. It was Bach at his best, with stirring vocal and instrumental highlights of spiritual and musical moments to touch the mind and heart. Sunday afternoon’s large audience responded with standing ovations at intermission and at the end of the concert.
“Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ lay in death’s bonds”) (1707) is an early cantata based on an Easter hymn by Martin Luther. In seven symmetrical movements for the seven stanzas, it involves a Sinfonia introduction followed by chorus, duet, solo, chorus, solo, duet, chorus. The orchestral prelude is polyphonic which carries over to the vocal passages. Echoes of plainchant of the medieval hymn that Luther adapted underpin the baroque. Each section ends with “Hallelujah” to emphasize the note of “joy” out of Christ’s suffering and pain. After the choral celebration in verse one, soprano Korin Kormick and mezzo Amy Maude Helfer recalled the power of death until tenor Justin Scott Randolph announced Christ’s conquest of death’s sting. The fourth stanza is central as the chorus describes “the strange battle that death and life waged.” Bass Alan Andrews then depicted the Lamb of God offered on the cross, and soprano Eileen Mackintosh and tenor Randolph celebrated “the high festival” with an ardent duet. The chorale conclusion is solemn and grand with soloists, chorus and orchestra building to the final jubilant Hallelujah.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major (1719) features the harpsichord together with flute and violin soloists and strings. It is the first keyboard concerto in a long line of great repertory works. In three movements it follows the traditional format of fast-slow-fast. The opening allegro has the harpsichord move from continuo support to a breathtaking cadenza of whirling chords and accelerating scales. Harpsichordist James Fitzwilliam gave a truly virtuosic performance which brought immediate applause from listeners. Denise Lozano-Healey on flute and Rachel Crozier on violin played with fluency and coordination in sharing the spirited, robust and lovely theme. The concerto with its rousing rondo jig ended the first part of the concert on a high note.
Bach’s “Magnificat in D Major” (1733) is a complex work in 12 movements fashioned from Mary’s Canticle in St. Luke’s Gospel. It opens with an orchestral tutti that is uplifting in its forward impulse leading to five soloists and five-part chorus joining in an exulted hymn of praise. Soprano Kormick sang an aria accompanied by strings, followed by soprano Mackintosh with oboe obbligato. The fourth movement focuses on “all generations” repeated in a cumulative chorale. Bass Andrews declared that “great things” are done by God, while mezzo Helfer and tenor Randolph intoned a duet invoking his mercy. The seventh verse is the centerpiece of the canticle with a tutti of soloist and choral voices and instruments. Tenor Randolph then sang of the mighty being thrown down from their heights to a violin continuo, and then joined mezzo Helfer accompanied by two flutes in promising that the hungry shall be filled. A trio of high voices with chorus next pictures Israel upheld in God’s hands, and his spoken word closes Mary’s hymn with an emphatic fugue. The doxology invokes the Trinity with a resonant “Gloria” cadenza and climatic echoes of the opening “Magnificat” in the final Amen.