It was a joy to hear the Harvard University Choir under Edward Jones and the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra under Phoebe Carrai joining forces to present the music of Bach. Carrai opened the program with a description of the pleasure both groups have in performing together, within the space of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Their delight in music-making shone through the whole concert. On offer were Brandenburg concertos nos. 1 and 3, the motet Singet den Herrn ein neues Lied and the cantata, Gott, der Herr, ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79.
The Brandenburg concertos are known from a handsome calligraph by Bach presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg in an unsuccessful attempt obtain a position. Possibly to impress the Margrave, the first concerto demands the largest number of musicians and is the most joyous and exciting in the collection. It also includes two hunting horns, normally not part of an orchestra at that time. As a sign of even greater status than employing an orchestra, a nobleman could lavish money on hunting, maintaining a stable of horses, hounds, handlers, and virtuoso musicians who could play complex hunting calls. The calls we hear in the first concerto can be found in texts about hunting and would have been recognized by the Margrave. That he would have had musicians to play them was probably a subtle compliment by Bach.
The first concerto is an immense work for a mostly student orchestra. Eight violins, four violas, five cellos, two bass viols, three oboes, two hunting horns, two harpsichords, transverse flute and bassoon – all playing at the same time! The instruments were spread across the front of the church, with the violas on the steps to the chancel, and the horns and the oboes near the rood screen. The first movement took a few bars to come together, but it then ran its rollicking course. The two horn players — Yonatan Kahn and Jennifer Hyde — somehow managed to play such demanding music on their period-correct valveless horns. On occasion they exemplified the saying that the horn is a spiritual instrument — you blow into it and God only knows what comes out — but this did little to distract from the excitement of the piece.
The second movement was a lyrical duet between Kristen Olson on baroque oboe and the peripatetic Sarah Darling on violin. Bach calls for an obsolete instrument – the piccolo violin – which has a lighter tone than a regular violin. Darling played on a normal instrument, but with lightness and vigor — never dominating the oboe. The third movement goes back to the excitement of the hunt, with the piccolo violin playing obbligatos. Normally three movements complete the Italian concerto form, but Bach chose to tack on a series of wonderful dances. A slow canonic minuet starts the movement and recurs between the trio (between two oboes), the polacca, and the second trio (between the horns and the oboes). The movement ends with a reprise of the minuet.
The instruments packed up as the stairs to the chancel filled with the University Choir for Bach’s glorious motet Singet den Herren. The choir sang with its usual enthusiasm and excellent German diction. The motet, written for double chorus, with the text alternating between sections, is also in an Italianate concerto form — fast, slow, fast. In the gorgeous slow movement, the chorus sings a chorale, periodically interrupted by the University Choir Fellows singing a beautiful aria.
A much smaller ensemble of three violins, three violas, three cellos, one string bass, and harpsichord assembled for Brandenburg No. 3. Lighter and more elegant than the first concerto, the third showed the precision that a smaller group can bring to the music. The middle movement, a brief adagio on the harpsichord, introduced a furious presto.
The last piece, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, brought back the full instrumental group, spread out laterally in front of the full choir. We were treated to a triumphant first movement, with two different musicians, John Aubrey and Krysta Harmon, playing natural horn at an awesome tempo and high register — not entirely successful, but very exciting. Of particular note was the duet between transverse flute played by Sarah Paysnick and the alto soloist, Safia Ahmed. The chorus and instrumentalists outdid themselves in the joyous first, middle, and last movements.