in: Reviews

March 10, 2014

Bach and Beyond in the Back Bay

by

Emmanuel Church rang out on Saturday evening with the joyous tones of a 40th-anniversary celebration. Back Bay Chorale (BBC), under its fifth music director Scott Allen Jarrett showcased the wide spectrum of works from which the Chorale has drawn its repertoire. Interspersed within the retrospection, Jarrett and one of his choristers introduced a new outreach program on which the ensemble is embarking.

Looking back on the Chorale’s series of performances of Bach’s major works over the last decade, the program opened with J.S Bach’s motet, Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226, and closed with the master’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV225. The former received a nicely shaped performance; the structure was clear, well communicated and the transitions worked well. The final chorale provided the choristers with their first opportunity to relax a little and really enjoy singing. It is a risky thing in Boston to perform Bach with such a big group, but with a little help from continuo played by cellist, Colleen McGary-Smith, double-bass player, Bebo Shiu and BBC’s Associate Music Director Justin Thomas Blackwell, playing the organ, they pulled it off convincingly.

Early in the performance, it became strikingly apparent that the chorus clearly hugely enjoys singing for Scott Allen Jarrett, whose gestures are clear, concise and emotionally open. In conducting mood, articulation and shape, without micromanaging, he leaves chorus members free to sing expressively: this was abundantly clear in the sound they produce, which has a good core, wide dynamic range and varied colors. Jarrett’s spoken introductions to the evening’s program were brief, direct, and entertaining. In addition he came across as very likeable.

This event also showcased samples of two works from the last 20 years of BBC’s active commissioning. To conduct the first of these, Jarrett welcomed back Beverly Taylor, the second music director of Back Bay Chorale for “Out of the Depths,” the final movement of The Passion According to Four Evangelists, by Robert Kyr, which she and the BBC commissioned in the mid 1990’s. Jarrett particularly commended Bev’s “heart and foresight,” in this commission. The harmonically complex though tonal writing was delivered clearly with good dynamic contrast, though I found myself looking for a more legato line that had more direction. There was a striking contrast between the quality of the line in the Kyr and the much  longer legato in the sound of the chorus Jarrett brought out when he returned to the platform to conduct a portion of Julian Wachner’s, Come, my dark-eyed one. This performance was well grounded, with a round, full, sound, with dramatic dynamics; in particular a nice diminuendo towards the end that kept the core in the sound. Hearing these Wachner excerpts made one curious to hear the whole of each work, and I dare say I was not the only one in the audience who regrets not going to either original complete performance:  Lesson learned!

Following the Wachner we were treated to three motets by Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan, Data est mihi omnis potestas (2007), In splendoribus sanctorum (2005) and Sedebit Dominus Rex (2005). These pieces are beautifully and effectively written for the use of amateur choirs to enhance the liturgy. Members of the chorus said that the pieces are interesting and satisfying to sing. In splendoribus sanctorum, was particularly splendid: the chorus provided an accompaniment to Terry Everson’s  delicate extended solo trumpet fanfares. The third motet was less secure than the others and, sadly, demonstrated the limitations of amateur choristers. However, as Jarrett commented at the conclusion, one was still able to hear the spaciousness and distance in the sound world created by the composer.

Between the MacMillan and the final Bach, the chorus introduced their new outreach program: BRIDGES. Named for a similar one run by the Minnesota Chorale, it builds on the vision of Larry Hill, the founder of BBC, to share the gift of life through sharing music. BRIDGES brings music to those who, for one reason or another, are not able get to performances in concert halls. This winter, the program has taken performances to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and others living in long term care facilities. The aim is to add a new constituency to this program each year: including homeless shelters and prisons in the next year. One of the BBC choristers described the effect their visit had had on patients they have visited this season, and we were treated to examples of the repertoire that the chorus employs. In some ways, the singing in this section of the program was the most expressive of the evening: they were really communicating their joy. There were some gorgeous details in their performance of John Clements’, My flower of Beauty. Their performances of arrangements of All the things you are, Precious Lord take my hand, and Danny Boy all showed some real expressivity. At this section the Back Bay Chorale showed its very good pianissimo; it’s in tune and has body. There is nothing like 120 people singing a well-supported pianissimo. It’s a great skill for a chorus to have. I wanted to hear more of it!

Bach’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied concluded the evening with energy, enthusiasm, clarity and shapeliness, earning the chorus and Scott Allen Jarrett a well-deserved standing ovation.

Congratulations on reaching 40 years old and may we wish Back Bay Chorale many happy returns of the day.

Letitia Stevens is a freelance classical singer, choral conductor and voice teacher.

1 Comment

  1. It staggers me to think that BBC is now forty years old. I played in the orchestra that accompanied it, and even before, with the expanded chorus at the Church of the Covenant, out of which the Chorale grew. The accompanying orchestra became the rudiments of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, many members of which go all the way back to those pickup groups. In my very first gig, Larry Hill himself drove me and my timpani over to Covenant, in the beatup white Ford Falcon that he, in turn, had inherited from my father, after my oldest brother had given up on it. I was out of town when Larry took ill and died, but I have never forgotten his way of letting the orchestra and chorus out of the bottle when the actual concerts began, content to keep time, nor his dyslexic tendency to mess up on rehearsal numbers, leading to the command, “Whatever! From the edge!” Dress rehearsals should be run-throughs, anyway! Here’s to Larry, and to his descendants!

    Comment by Richard Horn — March 10, 2014 at 10:30 pm

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