Bach Week closes in admirable style

Wed May 04, 2011 at 10:11 am

By Dennis Polkow

Richard Webster led the closing concert of Bach Week Festival Sunday night in Evanston.

Since its founding in 1974, Bach Week has had a close connection with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston. St. Luke’s organist/choirmaster and Northwestern professor Karel Paukert conceived the annual spring festival to spotlight and combine the resources of the St. Luke’s Church Choir with area instrumentalists in performing masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Paukert’s successor Richard Webster — who took over in 1975 and has been music director of the festival ever since — enlarged the scope and offerings of the festival but the St. Luke’s connection remained, both as the festival’s principal venue and spotlighting the church’s extraordinary and historically authentic choir made up of men and boys.

When Webster departed his St. Luke’s position and relocated to Boston, that longtime link to St. Luke’s was severed, which is a pity. As Sunday night’s closing concert demonstrated, Nichols Concert Hall is a wonderful venue for Bach chamber music, but the large Bach church works are far more effective in an actual ecclesiastical setting with an all-male choir.

The thirty-plus member chorus that Webster assembled for the evening was made up of fine professional singers, to be sure, but the individual timbres of the voices did not always match up, and blend was not always ideal Handel’s familiar anthem Zadok the Priest was given a spirited but somewhat saggy performance.

Things fared far better for Bach’s Easter Oratorio. BWV 249 began life as a secular cantata and was later reconfigured as a setting of St. Mark’s concise account of the Resurrection, augmented by instrumental movements and pietistic recitatives, arias and choruses.

The solo quartet was the highlight of the performance, whether heard in duet as couplets of soprano and mezzo soprano (Patrice Michaels and Emily Lodine) or tenor and bass (William Watson and Douglas Anderson) or in individual solos, particularly Michael’s bright and flexible account of Seele, deine Spezereien, which was complemented by the gorgeous flute accompaniment of Alyce Johnson.

Bach’s Two-Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1062 is more familiar in its original form as the Double Violin Concerto. Bach rearranged the work for two harpsichords to be played at Zimmerman’s Coffee House, his favorite Leipzig chamber music hangout. There is no denying that this music has greater appeal performed by violins, though Webster and Jason Moy made an eloquent case for its being heard in this form as well.

The evening opened with the Bach Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat Major performed by Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn. The performance got off to a tentative start but picked up considerable energy, steam and confidence as it unfolded.

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