Music of the Baroque leads off with a winning trio of Bach cantatas

Tue Oct 20, 2015 at 1:37 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Baritone Roderick Williams performed Bach's cantata "Ich habe genug" Monday night with Music of the Baroque.
Baritone Roderick Williams performed Bach’s cantata “Ich habe genug” Monday night with Music of the Baroque.

Music of the Baroque elected to open its 45th season with a J.S. Bach cantata trifecta. Nicholas Kraemer drew a deftly balanced lineup from the composer’s most prolific genre, with two large choral works framing Bach’s most celebrated essay in the form for solo voice.

Kraemer opened Monday night’s concert at the Harris Theater with the not unfamiliar “Wachtet auf.” In addition to containing one of Bach’s most indelible choral melodies, Cantata No. 140 paints a quaintly metaphorical marriage ceremony in which the soul celebrates its impending union with Jesus.

MOB’s principal guest conductor led a lithe, intimate performance with vital playing from the orchestra’s woodwinds. Vocally, the trio of soloists was especially inspired. Tenor Thomas Cooley was a spirited presence in his recitative and soprano Sherezade Panthaki and baritone Roderick Williams brought piquant charm to their duets.

Bach holds the full chorus in reserve for the final section, which went with apt resonant weight. Elsewhere the ensemble’s individual sections emerged rather undernourished and wanting in expressive detail. At Kraemer’s sprightly tempo and with just seven lightish tenors, the celebrated “Zion hört die Wächter singen” sounded oddly collegiate.

The chorus fared better in the evening’s closing work, “Preise Jerusalem, den Herrn.” As Kraemer pointed out in his user-friendly introduction, this rarely heard secular cantata (No. 119) is “very much a municipal piece,” written in praise of the Leipzig council elders and lauding their “prudent authority” and “wise governance.” Still, one wonders if Bach wasn’t getting a subtle, term-limits jibe at the aged worthies when noting their “untold and long lasting years.”

Befitting its ceremonial utility, No. 119 is scored for large forces including four trumpets, which pealed forth in gleaming resplendence led by principals Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer. The distribution of the vocal solos is a bit chaotic in this work but the four singers acquitted themselves well. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera’s diction could have been clearer in “Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe,” while Panthaki, Cooley and Williams were all exemplary in their solo moments.

Kraemer’s skillful balancing allowed the vivacious woodwinds to shine in the obbligato and supportive moments. William Jon Gray’s chorus was at its polished best here with a vital opening chorus and a fizzing rendering of “Der Hatt hat Guts an uns getan.”

The solo centerpiece of the evening was the evening’s high point. Roderick Williams’ appearances have been consistent assets in Music of the Baroque’s recent seasons, and the English baritone’s sensitive performance of “Ich habe genug,” more than lived up to expectations.

Cantata No. 82 is a somber, meditative work in which the soloist welcomes death as a gentle release from the pain of earthly life, when one’s “weary eyes close softly and pleasantly” and the soloist can finally find “sweet peace and quiet rest.”

Williams’s warm, flexible baritone conveyed the interior rumination and spiritual confidence of this setting with just the right degree of dignified gravitas. The recitatives had the affirmative strength to balance the intimate solace of the three arias. In the central “Schlummert ein,” Williams’ subtle dynamic shading and expressive poise conveyed the longing for peaceful repose with Kraemer drawing equally nuanced string playing.

The obbligato oboe is an equal partner with the vocal soloist in this work and Robert Morgan’s agile and expressive playing was as eloquent and affecting as Williams’ singing. Both men justifiably shared the front of the stage and took their bows together to warm applause.

Jane Glover will direct Music of the Baroque in Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus November 29 and 30.; 312-551-1414.

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