John Frayne | BACH's season-ender provides quite a contrast

John Frayne | BACH's season-ender provides quite a contrast

Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana concluded its 2017-18 season with a highly successful concert on June 10 at St. John's Catholic Chapel. Under its new leader, Joseph Baldwin, BACH has expanded its repertory beyond the baroque era of the 17th and 18th centuries to include more recent and indeed contemporary works such as the 2004-05 "Triptych" by Tarik O'Regan, which concluded this program.

The concert began with a work from the English Renaissance by William Byrd (1539-1623). His motet "Ave Verum Corpus" ("Hail, True Body"), a motet for the feast of Corpus Christi, was published in 1605. Byrd, a Catholic in Reformation England, survived through his superb music and his close association with Queen Elizabeth. The fact that this motet is in Latin is a sign that it was probably intended for an underground Catholic Mass. The BACH chorus gave us a surprise by singing it behind the audience in the entry way of the chapel. Its contrapuntal lines were sung with delicate balance and clear enunciation of the text.

There was nothing underground about the second work, Johann Sebastian Bach's Easter Cantata, "Christ lag in Todesbanden," ("Christ lay in death's bonds"). An early work, Bach may have written it as a sample of his church music when he applied for a post in 1707. It was performed in Leipzig in 1724, at the first Eastertide of Bach's long stay in that city. Based on a single hymn, its form is known as a "chorale cantata," and the hymn text was by none other than Martin Luther, with a melody by Luther and Johann Walter.

Ably led by Joseph Baldwin, the BACH chorus, and strings and continuo of the Bach instrumentalists, gave a firm and emotionally engaged reading to this work, which balances the vivid struggle of Christ with Death with the joy of the belief in the resulting salvation. In the arias and duets, there were moments of serene blending of voices as well as dramatic declamations from Kathie Kew Lee and Katie Buzard, sopranos, Amy Thoren, alto, Andrew Turner, tenor, and Robert Grisbrook, bass.

There was a quantum leap from Bach to Tarik O'Reagan's concluding work, "Triptych." Conductor Baldwin gave a few remarks before this work, but a program note in the concert booklet would have been helpful.

The composer was born in London in 1978. His mother was Algerian, hence the "Tarik," and his father was Anglo-Irish. "Triptych" is a joining of two works, "Threnody" from 2004, and "And There Was a Great Calm," of 2005. A commentator has written that this work intended "... to convey a personal belief in the inherent unity at the heart of all faiths and philosophies — peace." That ecumenical belief is bodied forth in the choice of texts from Islamic and Indian religious texts along with quotations from famous British poets John Milton, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy, whose lines from "And There Was a Great Calm" were the poet's reaction to the 1918 Armistice that ended World War I.

This work has passages of great intensity and considerable complexity for the chorus, and vigorously led by conductor Baldwin, O'Regan's music had great impact. In Part II, "As We Remember Them," soprano soloist Buzard provided lovely legato singing, interacting with fine singing by the chorus.

One unusual aspect of this piece were long interludes of soft, drawn out music, in one of which soothing violin solos were admirably played by Erika Zelada. Some of the text passages came through clearly, but there were other passages I could not identify in the singing. I did get the dramatic device by which at the end of the work earlier passages were energetically brought back with climactic effect.

In the announcements of next year's BACH programs, the strategy of "Bach-Plus Later Music" was evidenced by the choice of a "Magnificat" by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, JSB's eldest son, on Nov. 11, to be balanced with Johannes Brahms' "A German Requiem" next June 9, one day short of the date of Sunday's concert!

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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