In performance: Bach Sinfonia
Bach Sinfonia offers endurance, artistry, and motets
by Joan Reinthaler
One does not take on the Bach motets (seven of them at latest count) lightly. Bach had no mercy for his vocal performers. He treated them like oboes or, less often, like violins, expecting instrumental clarity in long runs and textural clarity in the midst of eight-voice fugues. He provided no places to breathe and, in the motets, no instrumental interludes as opportunities for singers to rest and regather vocal strength.
That the conductor Daniel Abraham and his excellent 16-voice Bach Sinfonia (backed up by quartets of strings and woodwinds, and an organ and violone continuo) were able not only to last through all seven in a single evening but also to end with a triumphant performance of the Alleluia fugue that wraps up "Lobet den Herrn" is testimony both to the endurance of the singers and to the artistic sensibilities of Abraham. Saturday's performance took place at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center, an inviting 500-seat hall, opened in September, that was an ideal size for this undertaking.
(read more after the jump)
Acoustically the results were mixed. Abraham favors sharply articulated and sometimes quite detached phrasing. The hall's acoustics are rather dry, and this combination tended to leave large gaps in lines - between the two cries of "Komm" that open the motet "Komm, Jesu Komm," for instance. On the other hand, the wonderful places throughout these (mostly double chorus) pieces where one chorus echoes back the other's last words emerged in sharp focus. The acoustics also were much kinder to the singers near the front of the stage than those at the back -- frequently the basses -- and this tended to make the balance top-heavy.
There were moments to quibble with: In the opening "Komm, Jesu Komm," for instance, an odd slowing down about 30 measures into the piece that felt more lugubrious than, as the text suggests, yearning. But there weren't many of these, and the Sinfonia's splendid gifts were best wrapped up in a dynamite reading of "Singet dem Herrn" with its relentless series of fugues that rolled out magnificently and with exuberant conviction.
-- Joan Reinthaler
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