Monday, September 25, 2017

The Reformation at 500: Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra and the Beecher Singers celebrate a half-millennium of Protestantism

 Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra at work; the photo from its website shows different personnel, in part, from Sunday's concert.
A little over a month from now, half a millennium will have passed since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church
door in the German city of Wittenberg.

Assertions of the true nature of penitence, in Luther's view, and thus the young priest's objection to the Roman Catholic Church's sale of pardons ("indulgences") were only the starting point (Oct. 31, 1517).  His quarrel with Rome lasted several years and involved a few more provocative writings before the breach became final with Luther's excommunication and Christianity's most consequential schism.

How appropriate, then, that the concert presented Sunday at Indiana History Center by Indy Baroque and the Beecher Singers (of Second Presbyterian Church) opened with the best-known concerto by J.S. Bach, "Brandenburg" No. 5 in D major!  Why appropriate, considering that the music is so buoyant and sunny? Mainly because the concerto form rests on contention, or, in the quaint language of the editor of the score I own, is "rather like quarreling individuals forced to discuss their troubles with one another."

Discussion of religious troubles led to a permanent break in Christianity. In music, the strife — within the music, it should be emphasized — is resolved pleasurably by the skillful composer. The solo concerto rubbed shoulders in its infancy and youth with the concerto grosso, designating a small group of soloists accompanied by a larger group. The full group is covered by the word "tutti" to emphasize the collective spirit toward which all that contention aims. The accompanying group is also referred to by another Italian word, "ripieno," which on the modern-instrument LP through which I first came to love Brandenburg No. 5 was translated literally as "back bench."

I loved the common-coin sense of that term and the way it points to the contrast between the solo group and the rest of the musicians onstage. The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra chose to have the "ripieno" represented by one to a part: violin, viola, and — as a sort of mediator, the continuo players: cello, violone and "cembalo concertato" (to identify the harpsichord when it is not featured as a solo instrument).

The gain in the IBO version is that there is likely to be less need of a conductor and the textures will be more transparent. The disadvantage is that those contrasts between foreground and background become less obvious. The listener has to concentrate to notice the contest: that the "orchestra" exerts its force repeatedly in the first movement while the solo players cavort in material derived from the theme that keeps returning. Eventually, the somewhat competitive display of flute and violin among the soloists (here, the well-coordinated Leela Breithaupt, flute, and Jennifer Roig-Francoli, leader) yields to the long-admired harpsichord cadenza, putting that soloist on top of the heap. 

The cadenza was played Sunday with a good sense of drama and niftily placed ornamental touches by Thomas Gerber. Ensemble unity and the common sense of purpose shown by the soloists were remarkable throughout. The pace of the second movement was most suitable; the direction at the top (affetuoso) says only how the music should be played (warmly, tenderly) not how fast it should go. Roig-Francoli and her colleagues chose the tempo well.

In the finale, the soloists get to gambol with the music at the outset, letting the "tutti" component tag along in a companionable manner that nonetheless preserves the competitive nature of the concerto form.

The rest of the program involved the Beecher Singers. Conducting the vocal ensemble, sometimes without instrumental accompaniment, was its director, Michelle Louer. The program was well-planned and balanced. 

Michelle Louer conducted the Beecher Singers and Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra.
A modern Bach tribute, an arrangement by Knut Nystedt of "Komm, süsser Tod" that both honored Bach and shifted vocal lines to shed light upon the emotional range of even his small-scale choral works, was refreshing. It was placed between Dietrich Buxtehude's "Mit Fried und Freud" and Felix Mendelssohn's "Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich" — works that spotlighted significant Protestant composers who came slightly before and well after the foremost one: J.S. Bach.

It was regrettable that the soprano soloist in the Buxtehude was deficient in German diction and vocal projection, but the bass soloist Samuel Spade was excellent. The Nystedt arrangement directed focus upon the secure intonation of the Beecher Singers in an a cappella piece characterized by close harmonies. That firm pitch sense and tidy phrasing also came through in a 16th-century Scottish Psalter setting of Psalm 133 ("Behold, how good and how pleasant"), which was used as a processional for the 11-voice ensemble.

Georg Philipp Telemann had the kind of public accessibility enjoyed by neither Buxtehude nor Bach. His cantata "Herr, wir liegen vor dir," displays his love of instrumental color, such as the paired flutes in the opening chorus. Soloing was brightly accomplished: the soprano aria with text (translated) of "Such righteousness as I own for myself is but a foul cloak" had its humility underlined with violin and viola pizzicatos. For pure, Handelian vigor, there was hardly a place more exciting in the whole program than the "rage" aria for bass, "Away, ye sins, do not grieve me!" It conveyed the feeling that for the truly righteous, sins don't stand a chance of taking root.

After intermission came a richly descriptive Bach cantata, "Christ lag in Todesbanden," an early composition with a crowning position in this program in part because it uses a text by Luther. In seven-line stanzas, each completed with "Hallelujah!," Luther meditates intensely on the meaning of Easter as proof that death is not final, but a transition into glory for Christian believers. 

The emphasis on the various emotions of this realization is complete: There's a dramatic line interruption after the word meaning "nothing" in the line "Nothing remains but death's form." In the next verse, the way the singers toss around the word "Spott" (mockery) illustrates that death is being made fun of conclusively. All this was feelingly performed, with fine solos by the bass, soprano Leah Crane, mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra, and tenor David Smolokoff.

It's unavoidable to see in Luther's words the background of some of his insights in his digestive troubles (about which he wasn't secretive). The "bonds of death" immediately cited in the first line suggest the costiveness that plagued Luther. Earthly life is death's realm, and the prophecy of bodily death being itself devoured and gobbled up by eternal life is celebrated in just those terms.

For Luther, human existence requires the laxative of divine grace to be tolerable, and significantly, that grace is cast in terms of an Easter feast of nourishing food — presumably the kind that gets the soul's bowels to move: "Faith will live in no other way," exults the last line. Salvation is in large part the promise of relief.

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