In performance: Washington Bach Consort
by Cecelia Porter
The Washington Bach Consort chose an intriguing theme -- with a twist -- for Sunday’s program, titled “Origins” at National Presbyterian Church. The performance featured not only two movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232 -- the Kyrie and the Gloria -- but also music by three of Bach's now-forgotten contemporaries who were part of the music scene at the lavish royal court of Dresden, one of Germany’s cultural crossroads.
The Consort’s idea was to capture a sense of that spectacular but competitive scene in Bach’s day, focusing on the two sections of the Mass that Bach originally hoped would gain him a choice court post. (The remaining movements were composed later.) The concert included a stirring Magnificat in A Major by Johann David Heinichen, the rather bland Ouverture No. 6 in B-flat of Francesco Maria Veracini, and an exciting Te Deum in D, ZWV 145, by Jan Dismas Zelenka. Consort director J. Reilly Lewis conducted, and the musicians gave splendid accounts of this music.
For the Bach, Lewis offered the capacity audience a daring experiment. Based on performance practice in the composer’s day, and leaning toward the trend known as OVPP (one voice per part) explored by conductors like Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott in recent years, Lewis assigned fewer than a dozen singers to cover five vocal parts rather than the gigantic chorus one hears more often. The voices were supported by an expert orchestra playing Baroque-period instruments.
It worked, to some degree. The singers managed the solos and choral sections with resonant clarity, exuberance and fluidity in lengthy, embellished melodic passages. The orchestra and its luminous soloists played expressively and with artful technique. But the balance between the singers and instrumentalists wasn’t uniformly effective, the orchestra (possibly too large) often winning out over the sometimes inaudible chorus and soloists. Perhaps the voluminous sanctuary’s acoustics also worked against the performers. Lewis should try his worthy experiment again -- in a smaller space.