Saturday, October 5, 2019

Rich Choral and Instrumental Music from Cal Bach

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the California Bach Society (Cal Bach) gave the first of its four scheduled performances in San Francisco for its 2019–2020 season. The program consisted of only two works, separated by an intermission. Both pieces incorporated rich instrumental composition for a diversity of instruments with elaborate vocal writing for both chorus and soloists. The intermission was preceded by Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting of the Magnificat canticle, listed in the program as BWV 243 but now updated by Bach scholars to BWV 243.2. The second half of the program was devoted to a Mass setting by Jan Dismas Zelenka, his ZWV 12 Missa Divi Xaverii.

St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (photograph by Zarafa, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

It is likely that both of these works were composed in the same decade. Zelenka’s Mass setting was performed in Dresden on December 3, 1729, while BWV 243.2 was composed early in Bach’s Leipzig tenure, which began in 1723. Each composer knew the other; and Bach had one of Zelenka’s Magnificat settings (ZWV 108) performed at the St. Thomas Church, one of the four Leipzig churches that Bach was required to serve. Bach clearly appreciated Zelenka’s techniques as a composer, but Bach was just as clearly the more adventurous of the two.

Last night’s Zelenka selection seems to have been conceived with spectacle in mind, particularly since the instrumentation calls for four trumpets (Dominic Favia, Bill Harvey, Lenny Ott, and Steve Escher). Nevertheless, for all of that instrumental color, by the time the listener has reached the end of the Gloria portion (s)he can be forgiven for feeling as if the whole affair was a matter of routine. (Fortunately, the many details in the text of the Credo were not set to music.)

Bach, on the other hand, was so committed to novel invention that one tends to encounter new twists and turns even when listening to the most familiar compositions. I have a particular fondness for the  “Esurientes implevit bonis” movement in BWV 243.2. In just about every performance I have encountered, the continuo strings play pizzicato; and I can close my eyes and imagine myself digging the scene at the Village Vanguard. That final pluck (delivered by Amy Brodo on cello and Kristin Zoernig on bass) after the last words, “dimisit inanes,” is particularly charming in way in which the music practically evaporates into thin air.

The soloist for that portion was mezzo Gabriela Estephanie Solis, who caught the spirit of the movement as surely as the continuo and the flute duet (Lars Johannesson and Alissa Roedig) introducing the melody. The other soloists for the evening were soprano Morgan Balfour, tenor James Hogan, and bass Christòpheren Nomura, all of whom were consistently capable; but it was Solis who always seemed to add just the right amount of dramatic seasoning to her delivery of her texts, particularly during the Bach portion. Artistic Director Paul Flight was consistently in control of all resources, allowing the attentive listener to relish the inventiveness of Bach and the rich spectacle of Zelenka.

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