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Bach Fest at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 11th, 2017

Bach Fest Choir and Orchestra with Christine Howlett

One leg of the ten day Hudson Valley Society for Music Bach Fest landed at air-conditioned Skinner Hall this past Sunday afternoon. Entitled “Bach’s Choral-Orchestral Works” under the direction of Christine Howlett, the program opened with Bach’s “Prelude: Komm Gott, Schöpfer, heilige Geist,” BMV 631 performed with memorable resonance by James Fitzwilliam on the Vassar organ. 

The choir opened with an attractive, plaintive piece by Felix Mendelsshon, then proceeded to “Ich glaube lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben,” BWV. Here tenor Owen MacIntosh distinguished himself with a remarkable recitative solo with good German diction. Alto Debra Bucher sang well and the chorus as a whole elicited the ambiance of divinity. Daniel Frankhuizen on cello ably substituted at the last minute for Susan Seligman.

During intermission I briefly spoke to the Barefoot Organist, James Fitzwilliam, and he confessed that Bach rehearsals were sometimes interesting and difficult because “it is Bach and one needs to wonder what exactly he was up to.” Their rehearsal appeared to have produced excellent results. I mentioned to Fitzwilliam that I once saw him perform at the piano with shoes about five years ago (at a Vassar Christmas concert where he removed his shoes at intermission), yet he denied that was possible because he has not worn shoes at the keys since 1998.

They began the second half with one of my favorite Bach pieces, “Concerto for Two Violins,” BWV 1043. Carole Cowan and Heather Vogel conjured that magical radiance of soaring joy that sounds like a musical perpetuum mobile, partly due to the rhythmic bass played by Daniel Merriman. Time appears annihilated by an eternal recurrence of joy and delight through melodic suspensions. The last movement remains a marvel in triple meter with triplet subdivisions of the beat. That phrase heavenly music is a cliché, but this piece may have been the original father of the cliché. Cowan and Vogel were, by turns, glowingly superb. Fitzwilliam joined the ensemble playing harpsichord, lending support to brimming violas. Edward Lundergan effectively conducted.

“Freue dich, Erlöste Schar,” BWV 30 provided long devotional meditation. A recitative solo by bass Michael Saunders was uplifting, alto Carol Lundergan sang well, and bass Matthew Zydel communicated the raw energy of true devotion with demotic accent. Soprano Kathen Cowan sang of religious committment. The choral finale offered unified rejoicing that sent the audience away with the feeling that they had entered a legendary, paradisiac meadow.

A nearby lady from Rhinebeck exclaimed that “this was like going to the Metropolitan Opera!” I am sometimes good at compliments, yet I could not top her words.

The Fest continues next Saturday evening at 7:30 pm in Cornwall, N.Y., at Cornwall Presbyterian Church with the Kairos Concert Singers and the Cornwall Ecumenical Bach Fest Choir. This venue will feature Bach's chamber works, especially his motets. Featured players include cellist Sarah Bish, Flautist Marcia Gates, and organist Ruthanne Schempf.

Bach Fest concludes next Sunday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 17 South Avenue, Beacon with a focus on Bach's keyboard works performed by James Fitzwilliam, Ariana Barkeshli, Gregg Michalak, Alex Peh, Ruthanne Schempf, Tom McCoy and Yalin Chi.