Last night Calvary Presbyterian Church hosted the first concert to be given by the Leipzig Cantata Project. This effort was initiated by baritone Ben Kazez, who came up with the idea after participating in a master class led by trumpeter John Thiessen in which he sang a cantata aria by Johann Sebastian Bach with solo parts for trumpet and bass. Thiessen observed that Bach had written about a dozen arias with that particular scoring and suggested that one could structure a performance around them. Whether this is the first of a series of concerts that will feature the trumpet or the scope will expand to the full extent of the three annual cycles of music for Lutheran services that Bach composed during his tenure as Cantor of the Thomasschule zu Leipzig remains to be seen.
Bach was a firm believer that music should enforce the religious message of the text being set. Where the trumpet is concerned this can involve both jubilation over manifestations of the Divine or “fear and trembling” before the wrath of Divine judgment and punishment. Both of these rhetorical stances were featured last night. The first half of the program presented BWV 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin (where shall I flee), and BWV 90, Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende (a terrifying end sweeps you away), both of whose titles only begin to suggest the brutal language of the full texts. The second half then turned to BWV 43, Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (God is gone up with jubilation), a mood established by the trumpet in the opening chorus and reinforced in one of the arias.
Having used the noun “chorus,” I must now explain the setting for a concert that grew out of intense work on a single aria. Last night’s setting took a chamber music approach to the cantatas. Kazez was joined by soprano Jennifer Paulino, mezzo Lindsey Lang, and tenor Kyle Stegall, meaning that all choral sections were sung one to a part. The same was true of the string section with concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock as the only first violinist, Holly Piccoli as the only second violin, and Clio Tilton as the only viola. Trumpeter Thiessen was joined by two oboists, Stephen Hammer and Fiona Last, and the continuo was provided by cellist Frédéric Rosselet and harpsichordist Kelly Savage. If the opening chorus of BWV 43 did not capture the awe-inspiring rhetoric of a vast multitude in jubilation, reduced resources definitely facilitated guiding the attentive listener through the many elegant twists and turns of Bach’s counterpoint, not to mention, in BWV 90, one of his most daring harmonic progressions in the final chorale.
The performance itself certainly provided strong footing for the overall project. All of the instrumentalists were in top form. If the program had been organized in part around Thiessen’s virtuosity, he was more than capably matched by Tilton’s dynamite approach to an aria for tenor and viola solo in BWV 5; and Blumenstock and Piccoli offered up several impressive violin duo passages. Vocally, the women tended to fare better than the men; but both Stegall and Kazez had to face some seriously challenging passages rich with rapid embellishment. Stegall seemed more inclined to compensate with body language to reinforce the dramatic elements, and it would have been nice to see Kazez show a bit of physical response to the vivid rhetoric of his texts. However, while both men still had to confront some rough edges than could have done with a bit more polishing, this was one of those cases in which willing spirits could still go a long way.
Nevertheless, as an exercise in self-production, the Leipzig Cantata Project got off to an impressive start. That included generous audience numbers with a serious attention span that, sadly, is not always encountered at more “mainstream” concerts. As a result it is well worth hoping that Kazez will be able to build on his starting momentum and bring his project to a second installment.