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Bach Cantatas Resume at Emmanuel


On this Sunday Emmanuel Music’s begins its 42nd consecutive season of Bach Cantatas with full orchestra. The series is integral to religious services for most of the Sundays in the liturgical calendar. This has been an astonishing run, well exceeding Bach’s 27 years at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The late Craig Smith presided over the first 37, and then John Harbison and others took over the roles of conductor and music director on interim bases until Ryan Turner was appointed two years ago. His first BMInt article follows.

It is indeed an astonishing and monumental undertaking that Craig Smith began and achieved as undergraduate student in the 70s. I am forever grateful and indebted to John Harbison and Michael Beattie for keeping the tradition, excellence and thirst for Bach alive and real in the years following Craig’s passing. Therefore, I inherited an ensemble poised for the next era of music making.

Ryan Turner leads rehearsal. (BMInt staff photo)

My interpretive focus has always been the marriage of text and music and how they can illuminate each other.  Our musicians, myself included, have vast experience with period and modern ensembles. We are informed by history, contemporary expressive possibilities, and the practical realities of offering a Bach cantata on weekly basis! My objective is to enable the finest music making with an informed mind, open ears and an inspired, enflamed heart. This, I believe, will challenge, excite and transform not only our audience and congregation, but also our ensemble.

I’m often asked how we choose music for Emmanuel Church’s services. Being an Episcopal church in 2012, Emmanuel’s lectionary cycle is different that the Lutheran lectionary of the18th-century. Bach’s cantata output is specific in liturgical designation based on the Sunday of the church year and corresponding readings during Bach’s time. Therefore, the challenge at Emmanuel is to match the subject, character, lesson and biblical quotes/paraphrased to the readings of our lectionary cycle. Cross referencing the Bible, the lectionary, and a thoughtful, comprehensive text by Melvin Unger detailing all biblical references in the Bach cantatas, I determine the cantatas for our church year. When faced with multiple choices, I consider the last Emmanuel performance date of a cantata, the instrumental and vocal forces required and, of course, a bit of personal taste comes into play! With the exception of BWV 4 “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” which we typically offer on Easter Sunday, I would like to complete the cycle of nearly 200 sacred cantatas before repeating.

While Bach mostly presented his own cantatas, he would have performed other composers’ music, such as that of Schütz, Buxtehude and the compositions of his family. At times, Emmanuel programs the music of other composers as well. For example, this season, —  Purcell and Harbison.  Last season we suspended Bach cantatas during Lent (the custom in Bach’s St Thomas was to suspend all musical offerings during Lent). I find this divergence from Bach informs the listening of our congregation and our musicians.

In keeping the cantatas coming, I am indeed fortunate to work with a first rate artistic team of Michael Beattie, artistic administrator, Paul Perfetti, orchestra personnel manager, and John Harbison, principal guest conductor and season composer. I particularly value John’s role as mentor, colleague and a treasure trove of knowledge and experience. His biblical intelligence especially as it relates to Bach, Schütz, Schein and his own compositions is remarkable. In both Paul and Michael, I am grateful to have musical colleagues I admire and trust. They both offer invaluable insights as a second set of ears in rehearsal, offering programming ideas and vast knowledge of modern and historical practice. The person that is truly steering the ship is our tireless, innovative, energetic executive director Pat Krol!

I’d like to go on and say more about my colleagues past and present from the orchestra and chorus, but that is a book in itself.  The musicians are the heart and soul of Emmanuel Music. Their collective artistry, integrity, passion, warmth, knowledge and experience inspire and humble me.

The ensemble in rehearsal (BMInt staff photo)

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  1. This is just lovely and brings tears. It’s the reason I live near enough to go to church every Sunday. Ryan’s experience and expression reflect what is quintessentially Emmanuel. Rev. Pamela Werntz, Rabbi Howard Berman, and John Harbison also dazzlingly underpin the whole enterprise. Wow!

    Comment by Pat Jackson — September 16, 2012 at 7:35 pm

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