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Bachian or Not, Zelenka Superb


zelenkaHow do you solve a problem like Zelenka? How is it that you pin down this Czech composer, Catholic bachelor, victim of dropsy and lifelong (indeed, centuries-long) musical neglect? And can you find words to describe him beyond “like Bach”? The provided program notes for this Saturday’s Zelenka performance, a joint venture of Juilliard415’s players and the singers of Yale’s Schola Cantorum, focused heavily on such comparisons to that other composer. It is an occurrence common and unsurprising, given Bach’s coronation as King of our modern musical canon (or perhaps only President-For-Life—mustn’t forget Beethoven!). But famed conductor Masaaki Suzuki gave a rousing case for taking Zelenka’s unique, thrilling musical language on its own terms.

Saturday’s program at St. Mary’s church in New Haven (also at Jordan Hall on Friday and in New York) consisted of just the Ouverture à 7 concertanti and the Missa Dei Patris; as foretold by the mellifluous Martin Jean, director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the latter was substantial and surprising. Zelenka, undervalued even in his own time, often seems to thumb his nose at bored congregations and unappreciative royalty, taking pains to establish predictable patterns only to upend them moments later. The Et resurrexit best sums up Zelenka’s churning creativity, with alternatively swooping, lopsided, single-note-slashing violin lines giving way to a hiccuping Renaissance hocket passed among the altos and sopranos, turning to cutting alto lines which transformed into poignant suspension, spinning into an absurdly ornamented fugue subject, finally concluding with a peripatetic fugue-like thing, whose intimations of the eternal slammed to a sudden halt in a flurry of Amens, with some not subtle text-painting of “mortuorum” and something chorale-like in the choir for good measure.

This zest of Zelenka’s, for unpacking his bag of tricks before our eyes, makes the piece a winner. Suzuki’s direction matched this compositional enthusiasm; his luminous white locks bounded to and fro with every sprightly cue and beautifully timed transition. Equally engaged, the Schola was thoroughly attuned to the most sublime moments: youthfully direct in the chromatic skulduggery of the Cum Sancto Spiritu fugue, and hushed, spellbound, in closing the languorous Et incarnatus est—potentially the most arresting cadential 6-4 figure in music history. The Juilliard ensemble glittered throughout Zelenka’s wildest, trickiest licks, but the lowest strings needed to claim more moments of chutzpah and leadership, especially in this music borne of an ornery bass line player. Zelenka’s oft-shocking harmonies and themes demand the sort of mildly unhinged physical engagement brought by the maestro and especially the violins, led by that historically informed force of nature Robert Mealy, the concertmaster and ensemble director. But the sound was nevertheless polished and often sublime, with the Ouverture an especially fine showcase of sparkling details and capricious turns of phrase. Ben Matus’s energetic bassoon and Paul Morton’s forward-moving theorbo added welcome momentum.

The high arches of St. Mary’s made for a top-heavy acoustic: a boon for Zelenka’s swooning soprano solos, but inner voices suffered somewhat, and soloists’ lower registers occasionally struggled to overcome the orchestra. Daniel Moody’s vivid, powerful countertenor pierced hearts but not ears, utterly silencing the room in breathless anticipation of his Agnus Dei da capo, which was superb. Nola Richardson’s serenely crystalline soprano beautifully complemented the full-bodied richness of Sarah Yanovitch’s, while alto Mindy Ella Chu’s roiling lower register seemed to quiet the orchestra by sheer force of will, especially in the brooding Domine Fili. The marriage of such New Haven vocal fireworks to New York’s instrumental wizardry is certainly a happy one.

The program notes state that this Missa, despite all its astonishing depth and breadth, “did not achieve the monumental length of Bach’s Mass”; but neither did Zelenka achieve the monumental number of Bach’s children, and that fact likely did not distress him terribly. “His compositions… even caught the ear of Bach,” remarks a New York Times review of this same program, but that (indeed interesting!) tidbit should only support, not supplant, what our own ears can already tell us. Bach may be unparalleled in musical mountaintop moments, but not every mountain we climb must find him at the summit. Today’s understanding of Zelenka need not rely on his fitting neatly into our predetermined, Bach-centric canon, but rather on concerts like these: vital, passionate, living performances of a dazzling musical language, one that stands perfectly well on its own merits, apart from all comparison.

Jacob Street is an organist and harpsichordist who received his Master’s from Oberlin Conservatory in 2012, and currently studies at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale. While at Oberlin, Jacob was awarded the inaugural Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.

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