Monday, August 7, 2017

ABS Academy Students Breathe Life into a Pedagogical Masterpiece

Johann Sebastian Bach had been the consummate working musician for pretty much the entirety of his mature life. He was too busy to think of leaving any legacy; and, if the thought occurred to him at all, he could look with some satisfaction on at least a few of the sons he had trained. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life, he began to show signs of wishing to leave some documentary evidence of his thoughts about making music.

The bulk of that evidence can be found in Bach’s four-volume Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice). By offering several major collections of compositions for both harpsichord and organ as examples, Bach established a compendium of “everything a good keyboard player should know” with regard to not only skilled technical dexterity but also the capacity for invention. (The collection concluded with the BWV 988 set of “Goldberg: variations on an Aria theme.) Furthermore, we know that, at the time of his death, Bach was working on the BWV 1080 The Art of Fugue demonstrating, as in the Clavier-Übung, by example everything one needed to know about making fugues.

In this context it is not out of the question to view BWV 232, best known as the “Mass in B minor,” in a similar documentary light. After all, Bach had devoted so much of his life to making music for religious services that it is reasonable to assume that he would wish to leave some form of document for this particular genre. This would provide one explanation why a man so committed to providing music for Lutheran services should set a Latin text. After all, documents of settings of that text were as old as the history of published music, going back to collections of the Mass settings of Josquin des Prez. From that point of view, one would do well to think of BWV 232 as a summa of all that Bach had achieved in the cantatas that constitute the first 200 entries in Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalog.

However, just as one can only appreciate Bach’s legacy of keyboard music by learning to play the works documented in the Clavier-Übung, one can only appreciate the lessons embodied in BWV 232 by “making music from the document.” It is therefore no surprise that the pedagogical significance of that document should be manifested through performance twice every summer as part of the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival & Academy. Indeed, those two performances presented, for the most part, by Academy students constitute a cornerstone of the much larger structure of all that can be learned through preparing to perform Bach’s music.

Last night St. Mark’s Lutheran Church hosted the first of those two performances for this summer’s Festival. Because the emphasis is on performance, rather than the many abstract qualities captured in the document, every occasion offers the potential for fresh perspectives concerned with how this music may be approached, not only through execution but also from the listener’s vantage point. While the opening fugue had a few shaky moments from the oboes d’amore and flutes, a firm footing was quickly recovered; and last night’s account definitely fulfilled what the potential promised.

Indeed, those wind players ended up providing some of the high points of the evening. The solo flute work by Bethanne Walker (who also plays flute for Wild Rumpus) balanced perfectly with soprano Amanda Keenan and tenor Gregorio Taniguchi for a thoroughly engaging account of the interleaving voices in the “Domine Deus, Rex coelstis” duet, while Maria Gabriela Alvarado’s flute work provided just the right level of meditative quietude to accompany tenor Sean Robert Stephenson’s account of the “Benedictus” aria. Indeed, it its tempting to call out every Festival student that took a solo turn; but that would turn this article into a mere roll call.

More important is to recognize just how many “lessons learned” emerge from a performance of BWV 232. The abundance of fugues is usually the first feature to strike the listener, particularly in light of the monumental architecture of the opening “Kyrie eleison,” which accounts for elaborate counterpoint equally balanced between choral voices and instrumental lines. At the same time, however, there is much to be learned from the Symbolum Nicenum setting of the Nicene Creed. This is the largest body of text in the Latin Mass; and, as my elders liked to say, “It do go on.” In this case Bach is showing both performers and listeners how to deal with such a large bulk of words without making the result sound like a priest rattling off “one thing after another” (in the spirit of Winston Churchill).

In a somewhat lighter vein, another one of Bach’s lessons may be taken as, “If you have a good thing, don’t hesitate to use it again.” Such was the case with the fugue for the second setting of “Kyrie eleison.” The first incarnation of this fugue can be found in the choral movement that opens the BWV 29 cantata, Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (we thank you, God, we thank you). It is not as long as the one in the opening “Kyrie eleison” movement; but it is a perfect example of a fugue realized though a gradually rising dynamic contour. Bach recognized that this rhetorical device (which had begun his cantata) could serve not only to close off the opening Kyrie section but also the entire Mass setting. As a result, he brings it back, pretty much note-for-note, in the concluding “Dona nobis pacem.” Whether or not the full-throated dynamics of the final measures have anything to do with “pacem,” Bach certainly knew when he had an ending that would reverberate with the listeners long after they had left the presence of the music itself!

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