The first vocal program of the Tanglewood Music Center took place on Monday with a late-afternoon selection of Bach cantatas. In past years, the show has consisted entirely of examples from the nearly 200 surviving church cantatas, but on this occasion it began with the delightful Coffee Cantata, [which, along with BWV 201, Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan], is about as close as Bach ever got to writing an opera; three varied and powerful church cantatas followed. John Harbison, directed the concert and conducted two of the cantatas, continuing his many years of devotion to this repertory going back to his early conducting of the Cantata Singers in Boston during his years as a student at Harvard.
TMC dedicated the concert to the memory of the greatly missed baritone Sanford Sylvan, who, in the last five years, had joined the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center and had taken a very active part in coaching the singers for this annual season-opening Bach event. He frequently said, “You don’t get rich singing Bach—you get happy.”
Before the concert began at 5pm, some of the participants took part in three preliminary events connected with the new Tanglewood Learning Institute, which takes place at the newly opened Linde Center, a short walk from Ozawa Hall. Over the rest of the summer it boasts an impressive schedule of lectures, master classes, and open rehearsals (and will continue to offer other events from the Boston Symphony and outside organizations throughout the year).
Because the concert would begin with Bach’s Coffee Cantata, these discussions took place in “Cindy’s Café,” a part of the Linde Center, happily setting the mood was happily with free coffee and cookies
In an interview with Robert Kirzinger, Harbison pointed out that few young American singers get any training or experience in singing Bach. Most classical vocal training in this country aims at operatic careers and music composed well after Bach’s time. (The Baroque composer who is a more frequent goal of American vocal training is Handel, if only because of the likelihood of singing jobs for the inevitable Messiah at least once a year.)
Beyond the question of training for the young singers of the Music Center, Harbison and Kirzinger talked about the role of the cantata in Bach’s output and the diverse nature of the selections. In addition, Harbison spoke of the importance of the singer’s understanding the expressive thrust of Bach’s writing and what he intended to be projected to the congregations.
In a second hour, BSO Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur interviewed three TMC Fellows (a soprano, a cellist, and a conductor) about their experiences of studying Bach under these circumstances and what they had learned in preparation for the upcoming performances.
Masur began his part of the afternoon by pointing out that he had spent his early years living in Leipzig, when his father, the late Kurt Masur, was conductor there, and that he had grown up steeped in Bach’s own church and the long tradition of his music. In the hour before the concert, he led a Q&A with the audience about Bach’s cantatas.
The concert provided a superb augury for the TMC events of the summer, with the four wonderfully varied cantatas. Former TMC Fellows, as far as I could tell, joined the string sections, because this summer’s string Fellows are busy rehearsing and performing in the string quartet marathon over the weekend. The flutes, oboes, bassoon, and trumpet required in various matches for the cantatas were drawn from this summer’s Fellows. Whether in moments of pain, worry, sorry, contentment, or joy the orchestral shaping invariably underscored Bach’s expressions of the text.
Part of the singers’ preparation ensured that they understood the expressive point of the texts. In this respect they gave exemplary interpretations, both in connection with the sometimes-intricate interplay with the instruments. The very precise enunciation illuminated the words exceptionally well.
The light-hearted Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) came first. It enacts a charming story about a young woman who has become addicted to her daily coffee (it is worth remembering that coffee only made its way to Europe in 1683, when the Turkish army besieging Vienna was routed in a surprise attack by allied Christian forces. According to legend, they found bags of coffee left behind in the rout of the Turkish forces; the first coffee shop was opened in Vienna two years later (the year of Bach’s birth), and by the time he was 50, when he composed the Coffee Cantata, the brew was known all over Europe.
The father, Schlendrian (which means “stick-in-the-mud”) objects to his daughter Liesgen’s coffee habit and makes various threats if she doesn’t give it up. She holds out against a threat of no new dresses, being banned from socializing at an open window. Only when he promises to deny her a husband unless she yields does she seem to come around, pleading for a husband—“Today!” But once he leaves to find a suitor, Liesgen informs that audience that she will not look with favor on anyone unless he agrees to let her drink coffee any time she wants.
Because the cantata offers two arias for both father and daughter, and in order to get as many Fellows involved in the program as possible, two father/daughter couples performed each half: Emily Helenbroek and Matthew Payne at first, then Robin Steitz and Edward Vogel in the second half. As narrator, setting the scene and describing the action, tenor Patrick McGill was superbly clear and direct, and he joined the others in the finale “Chorus” (a term frequently used in Baroque opera to indicate a closing number that employs all the singers in the cast).
In order to separate the warm pleasure of the Coffee Cantata from the more profoundly expressive sacred cantatas, John Harbison arranged the program with Cantata BWV 42 next, because it begins with a meditative seven-minute sinfonia, which served to establish a suitable mood. This cantata, composed in 1725, for the second Sunday after Easter, offers consolation in an exceptionally beautiful alto aria (sung by Olivia Cosio) accompanied by the mellow yet plangent sound of two oboes, based on a verse from Matthew in which Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” A soprano-tenor duet (Margaret Tigue and Patrick McGill) assert that such sorrows are not long-lasting. Then a bass (Nathaniel Sullivan) sang the final recitative and aria bringing a joyous sense of hope, confirmed by the final chorale. John Harbison conducted with a gentle intensity that brought the developing emotions to life.
The next cantata came from early in Bach’s career, when he was primarily functioning as an organist in Weimar with the responsibility of composing a cantata roughly once a month (rather than weekly, as he did during the first couple of years in Leipzig. Cantata 161 (“Come, sweet hour of death”) explores a theme that was very common in Bach’s time, though one that is not much emphasized in modern Protestant worship: the desirability of a comforting view of death, even a death called upon to arrive soon, with the promise of eternal salvation. Complex, seemingly contradicting, imagery describes the kind of death foretold (one of these, “honey in the lion’s mouth,” is an example from the opening movement. This first movement, combining soprano and alto soloists alternate with the chorus intoning lines from a chorale calling for the “sweet hour of death” to come soon. That this is intended to be a consoling thought is demonstrated by a gentle recorder figure (flute on this afternoon) with mezzo-sopranos Chloë Schaaf and Kameryn Lueng. The flutes continue with a recitative and aria for tenor (Eric Finbar Carey) to maintain the tranquil atmosphere. An alto aria (Gloria Palermo) calls for the final hour to strike, which Bach effectively suggests with pizzicatos in the strings to suggest the ticking of a clock. Nathan Aspinall conducted.
Harbison conducted the final cantata, BWV 127 “Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God”, also from 1725, for the last Sunday before Lent (after which no cantatas were given in church until Easter Sunday). The opening movement is unusually rich in intertwining themes from three different musical sources, blended into a pattern suggesting a procession (suggesting Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This complex opening movement precedes others that anticipate the Crucifixion (tenor recitative: Eric Finbar Carey), a tranquil acceptance (soprano aria: Elizabeth Polese), and the bass recitative and aria describing of a catastrophic ending (Walter Aldrich), in which the orchestra contributes colorful musical images of the end times with a trumpet outburst and other onomatopoeic suggestion.
Though Bach’s church cantatas have a kind of basic shape, usually including an opening chorus, followed by several recitative and aria combinations for various vocal ranges, then closing with a chorale melody and text in a straightforward harmonization, Bach manages to generate an extraordinary range of musical effects as he characterizes the specific thoughts of Biblical passages, new-composed poetry to further explain the Gospel, ending with the text and melodies that would the known to the entire congregation in firm, straightforward harmonizations. The scope of the nearly 200 surviving cantatas offers a plenitude for a lifetime of research and performance. On Monday we experienced a clear demonstration of the rich oeuvre in committed and satisfying interpretations.
Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997. He is a graduate of Pomona College and got his PhD in Musicology from New York University.