in: Reviews

March 13, 2012

A Good Case for Town-and-Gown Bach

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The music of J. S. Bach can be performed by “town-and-gown” musical organizations: a common occurrence, though not always successful; it is at times unwelcome among an Early Music community. Nonetheless, the Back Bay Chorale, led by Scott Allen Jarrett, made their case for this concert tradition in their presentation of the composer’s Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on Saturday, March 10. The volunteer chorus was joined by an outstanding group of professional soloists in the Passion narrative’s larger roles (such as Jesus, Pilate, and the Evangelist), and in the reflective arias. A full orchestral complement playing on modern instruments provided support. Although partisans of the “historically informed performance” movement might object to the use of such large vocal forces as well as modern instruments, this arrangement effectively addressed the need to create balance between the large chorus and its instrumental counterparts. The historical aspects of the work were well served by the excellent and thorough program notes by Dr. Robert Marshall, professor emeritus of musicology from Brandeis University.

Jarrett displayed firm control over every detail, from the physical movements of chorus and soloists to an impressive level of precision in the musical performance itself, allowing the group to avoid the muddled mass of sound commonly heard in “town-and-gown” performances of Bach’s music. Jarrett’s conducting, creating clear communication with his performers as well as his audience, led both groups to those musical and dramatic points he wished to emphasize. The group’s phrasing and articulation were especially well suited to the chorales as well as the more contrapuntal choruses, such as the popular opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (God, our ruler).

Although in most cases this precision created engaging musical renditions, it also seemed to impede the group’s engagement with the story’s more intense dramatic situations. The scene in which the Roman soldiers mock Jesus “Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig” (Hail, King of the Jews!), for example, did not seem to communicate the spitefulness of Christ’s captors. This is not to say that the group was not able to increase their musical vigor when called for (as in the Jews’ calls for Jesus’s crucifixion), but it still felt as if the performers were constrained by their desire for precision rather than allowing the passion of the Passion to drive the performance.

Dan Coakwell and Paul Max Tipton expertly performed the foundational roles of the Evangelist and Jesus, both displaying great sensitivity to the textual and musical structures. Tenor Aaron Sheehan and mezzo-soprano Emily Marvosh stood out among the aria soloists; Sheehan’s clear tone and powerful dramatic presence was well balanced by Marvosh’s dark, velvety tone and intensely expressive style. The pair’s complementary timbres were on full display in the closing dramatic sequence surrounding Christ’s death, beginning with Marvosh’s rendition of “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished). Sheehan’s aria, “Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt” (My heart, in the whole world), was a moving reflection on the drama’s pivotal event, moving toward the famous closing chorus, “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” (Rest well, blessed limbs).

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and Choral Journal.

3 Comments

  1. I find Joel Schwindt’s repeated use of the term “town and gown” in describing the Back Bay Chorale curious. While the ensemble’s conductor, Scott Allen Jarrett, happens to be the Director of Music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, the Back Bay Chorale has never, to my knowledge, had an academic affiliation. The Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus is an example of a “town and gown” chorus.

    Matt K.
    Baritone, Back Bay Chorale

    Comment by Matt K. — March 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm

  2. A fair point, Matt! My meaning emphasizes the professional/academic-amateur makeup of the group, between the chorus, the orchestra, and the soloists. I had considered expressions such as “Le Grand Choeur amateur” or the “Y’all come! choir” (as it is called in the Midwest), but “town and gown,” despite its less than precise application, eventually won out.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — March 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm

  3. That phrase “town and gown” also bothered me. Furthermore, a “Y’all Come” chorus implies a non-auditioned group, which BBC is certainly not.

    I am sure this performance was distinctive; however, a high-level amateur chorus performing Bach with professional soloists and orchestra is hardly a novelty, is it? And thank God! I suppose in Boston we have an abundance of Bach from specialty groups and sacred music ensembles, but what a crime to leave it only to the pros.

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — March 14, 2012 at 9:33 pm

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