Many voices lifted to honor many Bachs

Review: The Chorus America Conference celebrates all the uncles and cousins of the great family.

June 09, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Washington Bach Consort offered something besides a polished, enlightened program of sacred music of the baroque Wednesday evening at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. The concert, presented in association with the Chorus America Conference 2000 that has drawn more than 400 participants to town, also provided a fascinating, connect-the-dots lesson in music history. Call it six degrees of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In addition to that Bach, the Consort's namesake, there were works by one of his uncles, Johann Christoph Bach; one of his great-uncles, Johann Bach; one of his nephews, Johann ErnstBach; one of his cousins, Johann Gottfried Walther; and one of his sons-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnikol. There was also room for Johann Pachelbel, godfather to one of Bach's sisters ; and GeorgPhilippTelemann, godfather to one of Bach's sons.

Small world. And a glorious one, filled with noble chorale tunes and contrapuntal intricacies that the Consort, now in its 23rd season with founding artistic director J. Reilly Lewis, clearly relished. Never mind that the basilica's overly reverberant acoustics swallowed up some of the group's efforts at pin-point articulation, or that a couple of high voices occasionally jumped out of the otherwise beautifully balanced mix with dry, slightly flat pitches. Consistent sensitivity to text and musical nuance kept the performances on a decidedly elevated plane.

Highlights included one of a handful of extant works by Johann Bach, the a cappella motet "Sei nun wieder zufrieden." For this, Lewis divided his nearly two dozen singers and sent them to opposite sides of the church, where the constant interplay of melodic lines was delightfully enhanced. Admirable attention to dynamic shadings and a strong, underlying rhythmic pulse characterized virtually all of the music-making, but reached a peak in Johann Sebastian's buoyant "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied." The concluding fugue had particular spark.

Supporting the singers in stylish fashion were cellist Douglas Poplin, bassist Jeffrey Koczela, bassoonist James O. Bolyard and organist Paul Skevington. The latter also did solo duty intermittently, playing chorale preludes by Walther, Pachelbel and Telemann with great technical finesse and expressive warmth.

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