Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Music Director Jeffrey Thomas led the American Bach Soloists (ABS) in the San Francisco performance of the final concert of the 2015–16 season, the group’s 27th. The title of the program was Bach Easter & Ascension Oratorios; and, while the celebrations of both of these holidays have long past, the spirit of the music served to bring the season to a festive conclusion. In his notes for the program book, Thomas observed that Bach designated only three of his compositions with the noun “Oratorium.” This concert served as a “bookend” for a season that had begun with the third composition, the BWV 248 Christmas Oratorio, which was performed this past December.
“Festive” is definitely the right adjective, since Christmas, Easter, and the Ascension are all designated as Feasts in the Christian liturgical calendar. Bach rose to each occasion with suitably festive instrumentation, meaning particular attention to trumpets and timpani. Yesterday afternoon Kathryn James Adduci, Dominic Favia, and William Harvey made for a splendid trio of historical trumpets with vigorous support from timpanist Kent Reed. Similarly, the American Bach Choir performed with their most joyously rhetorical delivery, singing in either four or five parts (one or two soprano sections). The vocal soloists for the occasion were soprano Clara Rottsolk, countertenor Eric Jurenas, tenor Zachary Wilder, and baritone Joshua Copeland.
Thomas also observed that the oratorio for Easter (BWV 249) was one of Bach’s major achievements in repurposing. The music had been composed for a secular cantata celebrating the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxony-Weissenfels on February 23, 1725. A little over a month later the score was reworked as a sacred cantata with a new text by Picander and a transformation of the pastoral characters Doris, Sylvia, Menalcas, and Damoetas into Mary mother of James, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples Peter and John. The “action” involves discovering that the cave in which Jesus’ body was placed after the Crucifixion is empty; and both Marys and John have arias in which they reflect on the miracle. The chorus sings only at the beginning and the conclusion.
The oratorio for the Feast of the Ascension was classified by Wolfgang Schmieder simply as a cantata numbered BWV 11. It follows a familiar “cantata form” with an opening chorus, a concluding chorale, and a preceding chorale in the middle. There are only two arias for alto and soprano, respectively, while much of the recitative material involves the tenor serving as Evangelist by singing New Testament texts from the Gospels of Luke and Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. (This time repurposing would take place in the opposite direction, since the alto aria would later show up in the BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor.) All this makes for a smoother narrative flow than one encounters in BWV 249, which labors a bit under the problem that all of that adulation for Duke Christian becomes a bit much when translated into marveling over an empty cave. Nevertheless, any narrative shortcomings were overcome in both oratorios by spirited delivery from all involved, chorus, vocal soloists, and instrumentalists.
Each Feast was also recognized with an “introductory” work by one of Bach’s contemporaries. The Easter portion of the program began with Dieterich Buxtehude’s BuxWV 43 cantata “Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn” (today triumphs God’s son). This is basically a single continuous strophic structure with the “verses” sung by different combinations of soloists and the chorus singing of victory over death with minor alterations in text. The opening Ascension cantata was Ihr Himmel jubiliert von Oben (your heaven rejoices from on high) by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig. This was a relatively modest affair with an alto aria, a duet for alto and bass, and opening and closing choruses.
This all made for a program somewhat longer than usual. However, time passed quickly thanks to the celebratory rhetoric brought to the execution of each composition on the program. It is hard to imagine that Thomas could have come up with a more splendid way to conclude such a satisfying ABS season.