Bach Week Festival opens with spirited performances

Sat Apr 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Johann Sebastian Bach

Like many other music organizations in this economy, the Bach Week Festival has cut back its number of performances in recent seasons, with this year’s installment offering just two weekend programs.

Still, if the quality of the performances served up Friday night at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston is any indication, the music-making under music director Richard Webster remains very impressive indeed. Let’s hope that when the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in two seasons, it will once again be back up to a full series of programs.

Friday’s concert opened in aptly festive manner with Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins.

Unlike the better-known version for three harpsichords, no extant manuscript exists for BWV 1064, yet the unnamed arrangement heard Friday made a strong case for what is likely the original version of the concerto. More so than with the harpsichord, having three fiddlers on hand affords a more contrasted lineup of soloists, and Robert Hanford, Mathias Tacke and Stefan Hersh made an individual yet cohesive and characterful team, performing with apt light virtuosity and rhythmic snap. The concerto was performed without a conductor, but the playing of the backing ensemble, while polished and attentive, emerged uniformly loud in the live-wire acoustic and could have used Webster’s tempering hand to draw more light and shade.

No complaints about the ensuing performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Indeed, one can go a long time without experiencing this popular repertoire thrown off with this kind of panache and joie de vivre.

A triple concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord, the Fifth Brandenburg morphs briefly into history’s first keyboard concerto, as the flute and violin recede to allow the harpsichord an extended solo cadenza.

With perfectly judged tempos, flutist Alyce Johnson, violinist Hersh and harpsichordist David Schrader made a terrific trio of soloists, digging into the rhythms, tossing the melodies back and forth and bringing out the buoyant vivacity of the finale delightfully. Schrader was primus inter pares with his witty, idiomatic harpsichord work quietly virtuosic while maintaining a fine balance with his colleagues.

The concise program concluded with Christ lag in Todes Banden (Christ lay in death’s bonds). This early Easter cantata (No. 4) hails from Bach’s time as organist at St. Blasius Church in Mulhausen, the work mining Luther’s Easter hymn of the same name.

Webster took a free textual hand in this choral work, assigning some arias to soloists, others to the chorus yet drew bracing and effective results. Enunciation of the German text could have been crisper at times, yet the opening and closing choruses went with fine vigor and spirited singing. Soprano Rosalind Lee and tenor Hoss Brock made the most of their brief solo assignments with bass Douglas Anderson providing expressive and powerful singing in Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm. Kudos to the superb continuo playing of Schrader on organ, cellist Steven Houser and bass Collins Trier.

The cantata was preceded by William Byrd’s anthem Sing Joyfully, a nice, timely tribute to the day’s royal wedding with Webster leading a spirited performance by the Bach Week Festival Chorus.

Bach Week Festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The program will include Bach’s Cello Suite in E flat major, the Concerto in C minor for Two Harpsichords,  the Easter Oratorio, and Handel’s Zadok the Priest.; 800-595-4849.

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