As a faithful “Yalie” I am always eager to hear and support the current generation of singers and instrumentalists being produced by the school. So when the Yale Schola Cantorum and the Yale Baroque Ensemble came to Boston last Saturday to perform at Trinity Church, I made sure to attend. The program was all Bach. The Sinfonia No. 42 opened the concert, followed by two superb and lesser-known cantatas: In allen meinen Taten, BWV 97; and Zerreisset, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft, BWV 205.
According to the excellent program notes provided by Esther Morgan-Ellis (Yale Department of Music, Ph.D. 2013), neither cantata was intended for a Sunday church service. BWV 97 is a chorale cantata that incorporated one of Bach’s favorite chorales, since he used it in both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions as well as in other cantatas. Cantata 205 was actually commissioned by Leipzig University students to honor their philosophy professor August Friedrich Müller on his name day, and it was performed outside, in front of his house. Thus in one section the text describes the effort of Pallas Athena “to prevent Aeolus…from ruining Müller’s name day with bad weather.” The conclusion is a heartfelt wish that Müller will live “a long and happy life.”
The singing of the Schola Cantorum, all current Yale students or recent graduates, was generally excellent. These young voices seemed already capable of communicating with the vocal maturity of established artists. Their sound was vibrant and for the most part, on pitch. The only problems were a lack of correct German pronunciation at times, and a failure to emphasize the final consonants of the words at the end of a phrase. In a hall as large as Trinity Church this emphasis is necessary for the words to be understood.
The vocal soloists, each of whom came from the chorus, also sang at a high artistic level, and several showed real potential for a major career. Sara Yanovitch, Mindy Ella Chu, Gene Stenger and Andres Padgett (Cantata 97); and Molly Netter, Sara Couden, Kyle Stegall and Daniel Moore (Cantata 205) all sang with control and power. Stenger was one of the standouts on this evening. He sang with a warmth and fullness of tone throughout, and his ability to communicate the true meaning of the text “I trust His grace…if I live according to His laws, then nothing will harm me” was particularly notable.
I am sorry to report, though, that the performance of the orchestra was not on the same level as that of the Schola Cantorum. They simply did not play together very well, nor did they follow the solo singers. This might have been the result of the very live acoustics of the church, or because the conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, seemed unable to coordinate the singers with the instrumentalists. He also did not seem to understand that a cue should be given before a person plays, not as an acknowledgement that he knew what instrument was playing. It was also troubling that the articulation of the strings dissolved at the ends of phrases, and that they played completely without vibrato. In contrast, the singers employed a tasteful vocal vibrato, and reached an emotional depth the string players did not equal. There were also frequent intonation problems from the strings, despite their frequent attention to tuning.
The concert was presented by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in celebration of its 40th anniversary. It was an impressive outing that fully showcased the considerable talents of the Yale Schola Cantorum and its principal conductor David Hill, as well as the excellent work of the director of the Institute’s vocal program, James Taylor. Their work with these young and talented voices is to be commended.