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Lesser-known works open Northwest Bach Festival

Donivan Johnson Correspondent

The 35th Annual Northwest Bach Festival Orchestra and Choir, under the leadership of artistic director Gunther Schuller, opened this year’s festival Saturday with two relatively unknown but beautiful works: Cantata 157 by Johann Sebastian Bach and Mass in C by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Joining Schuller and the ensembles at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist were: Janet Brown, soprano; Thea Lobo, alto; Rockland Osgood, tenor; and Donald Wilkinson, baritone.

Bach’s Cantata 157 (“I cannot release You until You bless me”) was composed in 1726 shortly after the composer arrived in Leipzig, Germany. Schuller remarked that this work “is quite unusual in certain respects and most unusual of all of Bach’s cantatas.”

In the opening duet for tenor and baritone the seamless, exquisite musical tapestry woven by Bruce Bodden, flute, Keith Thomas, oboe, Nicholas Carper, viola, and the two vocalists was an aural wonder.

The tenor and baritone solos, which are, in Schuller’s words, “tortuously difficult” were performed with flawless diction, musical intelligence and deep feeling. The concluding, brief chorale (“I will not let go of my Jesus”) was lovingly sung by the Bach Festival Choir. The traditional continuo accompaniment part, especially John Bodinger, harpsichord, was also a flawless performance.

Beethoven wrote his Mass in C for the Esterhazy family in 1807. Upon its first performance, Count Esterhazy’s remarks about Beethoven’s unorthodox setting of the Mass caused the temperamental composer to storm off.

Schuller said he discovered the Mass in 1970 during the Beethoven bicentennial and called it “one of the most beautiful, gentle and lyrical of Beethoven’s works.”

He also said that “70 percent is soft, long stretches of lyrical music.”

The traditional Latin text is cast in four movements with numerous subdivisions. As with the Bach cantata, the seemingly effortless performances by orchestra, choir and the four vocal soloists were sublimely rendered.

The “Amen” that concludes the Credo was beautifully expressed by the vocal soloists with choir joining.

I really also should mention the superb diction, phrasing and choral sound that the Bach Festival Choir, trained by Darnelle Preston, achieved throughout the entire work.

Schuller’s sure directing and feeling for this music allowed all the performers and those in the audience to experience Beethoven’s music as Schuller himself did in 1970.

One highlight of this year’s Bach Festival was the listing in the program of all the works performed, the composers and major guest artists since 1993, when Schuller began his tenure as artistic director.

These lists are a veritable who’s who in world-class Bach performances. Saturday night’s concert proved once again how fortunate we are to have this yearly festival.

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