We concluded tonight’s rehearsal with a rousing Happy Birthday to our beloved conductor, Greg Funfgeld. It was the perfect way to cap a vigorous night of rehearsal. We started with the sinfonia and first choral movement of Cantata No. 4, buoyed by the beautiful tones of three trombones and a trumpet. I realize that this is one of many times I’ve referred to the “sturdy” counterpoint of the first movement, but the term definitely applies. There’s a wonderful sense of craft in the construction for each line of the text, with vivid text painting, all within the parameters of the stile antico (“old style”) contrapuntal writing. The writing is, at times, vertical, and, at other times, possesses a wonderfully florid linearity. Nearing the end of the movement, the choir sings in double-time a series of “Hallelujahs,” with calls and responses from each of the four sections. We were then given a preview of the next movement, which is the second verse of the chorale text, sung in duet by soprano and alto (doubled by trumpet and trombone), all over a chromatic bass line. I conducted this piece for my third-level conducting final at college, and I usually perform it every year with my youth choir at church. It’s definitely a personal favorite, and it’s wonderful (and rare) to hear the duet supported by the brass instruments. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen Agnes Zsigovics at the Festival, and I’m happy to report that her singing, if it were possible, seems lovelier than ever. Likewise, Daniel Taylor is in fine form, and it’s always a delight to welcome him back to our concerts.
Next, we revisited the 9th movement of Cantata No. 21, which also includes the trombones (Greg is a master of pacing rehearsals and making sure that necessary, varied instrumental combinations are on hand for our work). This often-overlooked movement (it’s got a lot of competition in the other movements of the cantata) is a gem, and represents a kind of active calm, with constantly shifting counterpart and voice parts entering and departing the texture, undergirded by the chorale tune, “If thou but trust in God to guide thee.” We then sang the last movement, a doxological offering with snippets of Revelation in the text. It begins with a homophonic (or chordal) hymn of praise with trumpets fanfares, and then evolves into a lively choral fugue, with lengthy melismas (many notes to one syllable of text). It’s sort of like hearing the music of the spheres swirling around the cosmos, all in rhapsodic joy and synchronicity (if all goes well, which it will!). What a great way to end the Friday evening concert! After we bid a fond adieu to the trombones, we continued with another movement of No. 21, this time a kind of choral recitative with stunningly interesting harmony, followed by several tempo and textural changes, all leading to a slightly more restrained choral fugue. This movement seems to have inspired Brahms, who conducted this cantata several times. There’s a moment that presages a similar treatment in the German Requiem, in the second movement, of the word, “aber.” In both pieces, the word appears off the beat, in a new, slower context, followed by rapidly moving music. These are the sort of associations that tickle music lovers, and remind us of the wide influence Bach exercised upon his neighbors of other generations.
Then, it was onto several movements of the Mass, including all of the choral movements of the Credo, the Sanctus, and perhaps the fastest rendition of the Cum Sancto Spiritu I’ve ever sung. Of a chorale prelude from the Orgelbüchlein, my college organ teacher, the late, great Eugene Roan once quipped, “Strap yourself in and pray for good traveling weather!” The Cum Sancto Spiritu is one of those compositions, in that it keeps performers right at the edge of their talents – and Greg honors that white-knuckleness by electing rather brisk, exciting tempi. It was an unabashed thrill, even if we were slightly out of puff by the end! We also touched on movements of Cantata No. 80, and then concluded the rehearsal portion of the evening with the battle fugue from Cantata No. 4. A little polish was applied, and after our Happy Birthday to Greg, we departed a little early. Next The Choir rests (the Orchestra is not quite as lucky – they’ll be rehearsing quite a bit tomorrow), and the the Festival begins on Friday afternoon. I think The Choir feels well-prepared, confident about our performances (but with the appropriate humility that Bach’s music commands), and quite eager to share all of this beautiful music with our audience. If you’re coming to the Friday afternoon concert, please do come a little early and hear Sir Nicholas Kenyon’s talk in the Black Box Theatre at the Zoellner Arts Center. It’s going to be an absolute delight!