Thursday, February 25, 2010

Johann, Johann & Johann

The statue of Bach outside the Thomaskirche in Liepzig.

If I had to do a quick, back-of-an-envelope list of Bostons' best singers, Teresa Wakim, Thea Lobo, Ulysses Thomas, and Jason McStoots would all be on it. So I was eager to hear them sing together in last weekend's Exsultemus concert devoted to the church music of Leipzig in the era of Bach. This relatively young ensemble, which generally is in residence at the First Lutheran Church in Back Bay, has recently been programming in-depth looks at the sacred music of various musical centers of the German baroque. Last weekend's concert centered on Liepzig, and offered an unusual chance to hear not only the period's big kahuna in his heyday, but also the music of Johann Schelle and Johann Kuhnau, the previous Johanns in the prestigious Lipezig position of "Thomaskantor" (that is, Cantor to both the St. Thomas Lutheran Church and its School - see photo above).

The program opened with a happy blast on the First Lutheran organ from Bálint Karosi, who attempted, but to my mind didn't quite pull off, Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C Major (that's BMV 545, not 846), in which the blistering dialogue between pedal and keyboard felt a bit impacted and awkward at points.

Karosi was much fleeter and light-fingered, however, once he joined the ensemble upfront to play organ for the Kuhnau and Schelle. Of these two composers, Kuhnau, who immediately preceded Bach as Thomaskantor, is the better known - but Schelle's chamber cantata Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes made me wonder why, at least as its vocal line was essayed here by bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas. I last heard Mr. Thomas as the Commendatore in BLO's Don Giovanni - in which, for reasons unknown, the director decided to amplify his voice. Thomas didn't need amplification then, and certainly doesn't need it now. Indeed, up close and personal in the First Lutheran Church, his voice seemed bigger than ever, and imbued with an astonishing depth and range of color; it's the kind of voice in which you can sense one burnished shade of bronze moving over other, even deeper ones. Mr. Thomas is not yet a fluid actor, but he sings with an open sincerity that's quite appealing (given the tendency of so many baroque singers to emote in roughly the same smooth, sugary way). He was also lucky in the passionately committed back-up he received from the instrumental ensemble, particularly from violinists Laura Gulley and Jesse Irons.

The Kuhnau works that followed seemed somehow less forceful, but were still lovely. Soprano Wakim and tenor McStoots found an exquisite lyricism in each; Wakim was her usual luminous self in the slightly-meandering Und ob die Feinde Tag und Nacht ("Although Our Enemies Day and Night"), and McStoots likewise brought the handsome melodiousness he's known for to the tighter Laudate pueri Dominum ("Praise ye the Lord, ye children"). The instrumental ensemble was again superb, but special praise must go to Tom Zajac, who acquitted himself exceptionally well on the notoriously difficult early trombone.

Wakim and McStoots joined forces with Thomas and alto (if usually mezzo!) Thea Lobo for a ravishing final cantata by Bach, Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe ("Jesus gathered the Twelve to himself"). The blending of these four great voices (although the soprano didn't join in till the end) was probably the highlight of a very rich and rewarding program (even if on the instrumental side, period oboist Graham St.-Laurent seemed to struggle a bit at first). The next offering from Exsultemus is an afternoon devoted to "Lent in Dresden" on March 14, again at First Lutheran. Period music enthusiasts will not want to miss it.