in: Reviews

February 23, 2010

Exsultemus Infuses the Leipzig Baroque with Vibrant Life

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When singer and busy BEMF staffer Shannon Canavin founded Exsultemus in 2003, the new a cappella group quietly joined an already teeming panoply of aspiring forces looking for a public and for survival in the tough, but also potentially rich, cultural environment of this old city. Quietly and with organic logic, Exsultemus expanded beyond the 15th-16th-century a cappella repertoire of its initial seasons to tackle thematic programs including Baroque sacred music, not infrequently underpinning vocal soli and the chorus with instrumental colleagues. Exsultemus has been in residence at First Lutheran, Back Bay, from the outset, though they visit other places in and around Boston each season.

It’s logical, then, that this still rather new ensemble’s astonishingly extensive 2009-2010 season— seven programs in multiple venues — should present the greater Boston public with four revealing overviews of church music from great German centers of the Baroque. These are Hamburg, Dresden, Darmstadt, and — on Sunday, February 21 — Leipzig.

Boston’s great German Baroque organ, the famous two-manual instrument by Richards, Fowkes & Co., opened the concert. With his customary flair and ease, First Lutheran music director Bálint Karosi launched Johann Sebastian Bach’s festive Präludium & Fuge in C, BWV 545, on its propulsive way through an intertwined pedal and manual fabric that drew overt sighs of pleasure from the listeners.

<p>Historic coat of arms of the city of Leipzig    (Christopher Greenleaf photo)</p>

Historic coat of arms of the city of Leipzig

The half-century of music Exsultemus elected to present begins in the relative obscurity of the second city of Sachsen some two musical generations after the death of Monteverdi. Leipzig was a prosperous princely town of regional importance, with powerful commercial aspirations and a nascent cultural life that would, by the second quarter of the 18th century, be on a par with that of Hamburg. The Stadrath, Leipzig’s town councilors, were famous throughout the many German lands of that era for their control, disapproval, and intricate meddling in artistic matters. The integration of city affairs and Protestant church authorities was so intimate that no appointment of a musician could be made on a purely æsthetic and liturgical basis, as one promising applicant, a native of Eisenach in the neighboring state of Thüringen, was to discover during a chill winter in early 1723.

Before thirty-eight year-old Bach’s successful application for the position of Thomaskantor, there were others of great ability, who managed to endure the at times oppressive commercial and church establishment uneasily supporting Leipzig’s blossoming musical diversity. Among these was Johann Schelle (1648-1701). He completed a full academic and musical Laufbahn at the prestigious Thomsasschule, then at the Universität Leipzig. His few years in Eilenburg ended in a peaceful transition into his teacher’s position as Leipziger Kantor. Official duties among German Kantoren required diligent supervision of education in church and town, the fashioning of state and liturgical occasional scores on demand and by contract, and such performance activity as the Stadtrath deemed to be part of the job. Schelle was evidently able to satisfy the often challenging demands, with their implicit conflicts across churchly turf lines and amongst the politically, not to mention socially, spiky fiefdoms fiercely asserted by individual Rathsherren and their peppery claques. Exsultemus chose his tuneful chamber cantata, Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, for bass soloist, two violins, and basso continuo (cello & chamber organ) to represent the man and his stint as Stadtkantor (1677-1701). Well-regarded bass Ulysses Thomas lofted his darkly present and enjoyable voice amid elegantly sinewy violin parts. Violinists Laura Gulley and Jesse Irons played with sweetness and unanimity. They breathed dynamic life into string writing that was at one time commonly played with an affectively flat, thin fiddle sound that turned audiences away from this now familiar corner of early music.

Polychrome vaulting in the restored Thomaskirche, Leipzig     (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Polychrome vaulting in the restored Thomaskirche, Leipzig (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

There followed two notably different sides of Johann Kuhnau, who had an impressive run as Thomaskantor, from 1684 until his death in 1721. Each of the works is cast as a chamber cantata, one proclaiming the New Testament in modern German, the other harkening back to a superseded æsthetic as a Latin motet sporting a contemporary wig. Soprano Teresa Wakim proclaimed her crunchy German text with aplomb, beautifully commented upon by Jesse Irons’s expressive, polished violin solo. The evening’s loveliest vocal moments came when brilliant tenor Jason McStoots soared into the florid sonorities of Kuhnau’s Laudate pueri Dominum, with an instrumental backing of two violins, Posaune, and marvelously deft cello-cum-organ continuo. The ever-mobile continuo department has to establish clear forward motion above which the upper voices, especially the very difficult trombone part, can pull off their detailed statements. Audrey Cienniwa and Bálint Karosi rose to the highest standard. Few musicians could have presented the high-speed road test of the full-range obligato Posaune part as nimbly, and with such able preservation of its chamber character, as musical polymath Tom Zajac. (To see this man’s name on a concert program is to attempt to smilingly guess which and how many instruments he will be playing.)

The concluding piece was one of Bach’s trial compositions for his Leipzig position, his Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22. It was also the one chance to hear the familiar Exsultemus ensemble singing, which is always pleasurable. In its efficient five movements, this small-scale New Testament cantata recombines two violins, viola, and oboe enchantingly to showcase tenor, bass, coro, alto, bass, and tenor before culminating in a (frustratingly short) chorale in which the soprano finally joins in. Lovely double-reed lines from Graham St.-Laurent (placed nearly antiphonally, at the far side of the basso continuo lot) shot the filigreed upper string textures through with exquisite small collisions of harmony and color. Fine violist Joy Grimes was in the band just this once, as well.

This was a lovely program, beautifully conceived and brought to life. Three more Exsultemus concerts this season will present adventurous, rewarding repertoire, including the final in the ensemble’s quartet of German focal concerts: Dresden (Schütz, Heinichen & the irreverent Herr Zelenka) on Sunday, 14 March, at First Lutheran.

<p>Exsultemus performing Bach's Cantata, BWV 22, at First Lutheran, Boston    (Christopher Greenleaf photo)</p>

Exsultemus performing Bach's Cantata, BWV 22, at First Lutheran, Boston (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

As so often, First Lutheran Church was the magnet for this special concert. The welcoming parish and its music-friendly space have come to be associated with performances by a broad range of musicians seeking direct engagement with audiences that show up, then return in sufficient numbers for future programs to make the fiscal reality of programs something other than scary. This church has become home to a number of soli and ensembles, both in the public eye and for that tougher thing for musicians to arrange on an ongoing basis — rehearsals through successive years. Willing, supportive hosts for this less visible aspect of a great city’s music life are scarce.

Christopher Greenleaf is a veteran recording engineer who collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

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