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Family Ties

October 21, 2008

The San Francisco Bach Choir began its 73rd season last weekend with a concert titled “Before Bach: A Family Portrait,” paying homage to Johann Sebastian’s musical predecessors. As the program notes explained, Sebastian himself was interested in his genealogy, and in 1735 drew up a family tree dating back to the 1500s, which is the most reliable document we have today on the entire Bach family. Sebastian also collected and performed pieces by his family members, which is likely the reason that most of those works survive today.
Saturday’s concert at Calvary Presbyterian Church included music from cousins whose works Sebastian is known to have admired, plus an assortment from other important musical figures. The Bachs were represented by Johann Cristoph and Johann Michael, both cousins of Sebastian's father, and by Johann Ludwig, a more distant cousin. The other composers on the program were Dietrich Buxtehude (a famous organist and early influence on Sebastian); Franz Tunder (Buxtehude's predecessor as organist in Lübeck); and Jacobus Handl and Johann Philipp Krieger (prominent earlier composers).

Music Director Corey Jamason's programming — without a piece by Sebastian on the program — allowed these works to be appreciated in their own context, rather than in comparison to the later, famous, “high Baroque” style. Pieces like Tunder's Dominus illuminatio mea (Lord, enlighten me), and Ludwig Bach’s Das ist meine Freude (That is my joy), and “Sei nun wider zufrieden meine Seele” (Be again at peace, my soul) turned out to be supremely inventive and engaging.
Standout Ensemble
Throughout the evening, the choir was well-blended, well-balanced, and in tune. The singers were consistently responsive to Jamason's phrasing, handled florid lines with agility, and, delightfully, looked as though they understood what they were singing and were enjoying bringing the music to life.

They did face a few challenges. In some of the double choir pieces, though the divided chorus sang accurately and with feeling, they needed to interact with, and respond to, each other. Everything was correctly aligned, but the deeper sense of how the music worked didn’t fully emerge. On the technical side, some of the articulation in florid passages was overly heavy, with an emphasis on each note rather than on the line as a whole. Admittedly, that is a hard balance to strike with more than just a few singers per part. Surprisingly — since the choir's Germanic Latin was always clear and intelligible — the German diction was somewhat limp.

From the beginning of the concert, the SFBC Period Orchestra of four violins plus continuo delivered a deep-hued, lush sound. The continuo group (John Dornenburg, viola da gamba and violone; Katherine Heater, organ; Elisabeth Reed, cello and gamba; Kate van Orden, bassoon) gave strong support to the choir throughout the evening. During the first half of the evening, the violins (Andrew Fouts, David Sego, David Wilson, and Aaron Westman) struggled with intonation, though they played superbly when they returned in the second half.

SFBC was joined by Erica Schuller, soprano, and Katherine Growdon, alto, for several pieces. The standout solo was a verse for Growdon in Buxtehude's Jesu, meine Freude. Her voice was rich, with a silky color to her upper register. Later in the program, Growdon's warm timbre was paired with an obbligato viola da gamba in Buxtehude's solo motet Jubilate Domino (Psalm 100). Jubilate Domino is a tour de force for the gamba player, and exploits a wide vocal range. Growdon sang with intensity and drama, and gambist Reed executed her part with exquisite musical expression, despite a few technical challenges.

Schuller was featured in Krieger's An die Einsamkeit, a poignant, yet gentle ode to loneliness. Partnered eloquently by Jamason on the organ, Schuller sang sensitively, with consummate stage presence. Her voice has an almost creamy quality in its lower register. The bright quality of her upper register was a bit overpowering in this intimate scoring, though it worked beautifully with the orchestra.

The concert ended with an unusual twist, even for a program with so many unrecognized works and composers: the Swedish Herren vår Gud by Buxtehude. Like the whole program, it proved that there is plenty of life in “pre-Bach” Baroque music. I look forward to what Jamason and the SFBC will uncover next.

Kaneez Munjee is a singer, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University, and specializes in late 17th- and early 18th-century French music.