In the genre of sacred music, Johann Sebastian Bach was at his most productive after he was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule zu Leipzig, a public boarding school based at the St. Thomas Church. In addition to his educational duties, Bach was required to provide music for not only St. Thomas but also three other Leipzig churches, St. Nicholas Church, St. Matthew (also known the “new” church, Neukirche, a title it assumed in 1699), and St. Peter. Shortly after his arrival in 1723, Bach began to prepare annual cycles of cantatas for the liturgical year, which began on the first Sunday after Trinity. The result was three such annual cycles of music performed on a weekly basis, primarily at St. Thomas and St. Matthew, during the period from 1723 to 1726.
This portion of the Bach canon is impressive for the broad diversity of approaches that Bach would take in order to meet his “job description.” One tends to think of sacred music in a context of a church choir, which is often joined by the congregation for familiar hymns. Instrumental accompaniment rarely involves more than the church organ; and soloists, vocal or instrumental, were reserved for special occasions. However, because, like Antonio Vivaldi, Bach was associated with a school, he could draw upon a supply of skilled (often by virtue of his own training) musical talents for both vocal and instrumental performance. As a result, these days the music from the three Leipzig cycles is more likely to be encountered in concert settings that can muster the required talents, rather than in the church services for which those pieces were originally intended.
(The most notable exception is the Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan, which has the good fortune of being only a few blocks away from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Every Sunday the Vespers service incorporates music that Bach wrote for that particular date in the liturgical calendar, including one cantata performed in its entirety. This is both the first and the longest running program of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.)
Next month will see the first performance presented by the Leipzig Cantata Project. The objective is to build new audiences for Bach’s cantatas independent of the religious beliefs of any who attend. Each concert will be introduced by a guest speaker, who will provide a context for the program that addresses not only the music but also both the religious and the historical contexts. While we tend to think of these cantatas solely in terms of Bach’s music, the texts were the key elements in the services for which that music was composed; and these introductions will serve to enhance awareness of those texts and how Bach approached them.
It the interest of appealing to audience attention, that first performance will offer three cantatas, each of which involves impressive solo work for trumpet. The trumpeter will be John Thiessen, familiar to early music audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area. The cantatas will be BWV 5, Wo soll ich fliehen (where shall I flee), BWV 43, Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (God has gone up with a shout), composed for the Feast of the Ascension, and BWV 90, Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende (a horrible end will carry you off). Instrumentalists will be led by violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock and will also include Holly Piccoli (violin), Clio Tilton (viola), Frédéric Rosselet (cello), Steve Hammer (oboe), and continuo provided by harpsichordist Katherine Heater. Vocalists will be soprano Jennifer Paulino, mezzo Lindsey Lang, tenor Kyle Stegall, and baritone Ben Kazez (who is also responsible for initiating this project). At this first performance choral sections will be sung as a vocal quartet. The guest speaker for the introduction has not yet been announced.
The concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16. The performance will take place at Calvary Presbyterian Church, located at 2515 Fillmore Street on the northwest corner of Jackson Street. This should be a familiar venue for those who follow historically-informed performances of music from the Baroque period in San Francisco; and its acoustics are particularly conducive for that repertoire. General admission will be $20 with VIP seating at the Orchestra Level available for $75. Tickets may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page. The event will also include wine provided by WineWise and snacks from Gaumenkitzel, an audience-building approach that was inspired by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra based in Toronto.