Enriching fans who go for baroque

Ensemble: The Washington Bach Consort will perform `St. Matthew Passion.'

Classical Music

February 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A chorus from Washington is heading to Baltimore - no, not to replace the hapless Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

This ensemble, which made plans to travel north long before BSO officials put an expiration date on the BSO choristers, is seeking to expand horizons as it celebrates 25 seasons of distinguished service to Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries.

The Washington Bach Consort enjoys a sterling reputation for refined, insightful music-making, and not just in D.C. The professional chorus of 24, regularly joined by a similar-sized orchestra of period instrument specialists, has visited other U.S. cities - including Baltimore in June 2000 - and made three European tours.

Early next month, the Consort returns to Baltimore in a big way, presenting one of the supreme masterpieces of music and the ultimate Lenten work, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, at Goucher College.

"We know that Baltimore is a very strongly supportive community for choral music," says Consort executive director Stephen Borko. "We would like to make Baltimore concerts a regular part of our schedule. We plan to do two next year - Handel's Israel in Egypt and a program of Bach's short masses."

There's a strong economic argument for such an expansion. "Once you produce a work on a massive scope like the St. Matthew Passion, doing an extra performance is very cost-effective," says J. Reilly Lewis, founding music director of the Consort. "The performers certainly enjoy the opportunity to do another performance. And Baltimore is, logistically, a neighboring city. So it makes sense to come here."

Not everyone may find it so sensible; every community tends to get a little protective of its own arts organizations. The Consort's attempt to establish a presence on Baltimore's cultural calendar could ruffle a feather or two, But Lewis hopes to avoid that.

"There are multiple choruses operating at a high level in Washington, just as in Baltimore," he says, "and we like to think there is enough room for everybody. Maybe I'm being naive. But we're definitely not out to conquer anybody or anyplace."

None of Baltimore's several fine choral ensembles does exactly what the Washington Bach Consort does - perform baroque repertoire with baroque instruments.

"It's not so much that period instruments are better," Lewis says. "And I definitely don't like to hype concerts by saying, `Hear the music the way Bach heard it.' We started using period instruments four years ago - D.C. is not Amsterdam or Boston, but there are more and more very fine baroque specialists here now.

"When instrumentalists who speak this very special musical language come together with singers who live and breathe that language, it truly is a consort, a real symbiosis. And Bach comes alive."

An interest in historical performance practice drives many organizations these days; the authenticity movement has changed the way people perform and listen to 17th-and 18th-century music. Faster tempos and more transparent textures are among the hallmarks of this movement.

Although the Consort's Bach invariably is infused with authentic style, Lewis is not a fanatic. "To me," he says, "the `authentic' approach to a piece of music is to love it with all your heart."

The Washington Bach Consort performs Bach's St. Matthew Passion at 7 p.m. March 2 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. Tickets cost $25 to $35. Call 800-955-5566.

Series director resigning

It's hard to imagine Baltimore's musical life without the Shriver Hall Concert Series, which presented the top-notch Jacques Thibaud String Trio playing Mozart and Beethoven - from memory, no less - with impeccable style and technique on Sunday.

It's also hard to imagine how the series would have reached its current strength without the efforts of managing director Bill Nerenberg - or how the organization is going to thrive without him.

Nerenberg has decided to resign at the end of this season. He plans to devote his energies to other area assets, especially the Peabody Institute. He's also founding president of the New Chamber Festival Baltimore, which makes its debut in June and is planned as a biennial event devoted to chamber music of the 20th century and today.

Not too long ago, folks were expecting the Shriver Hall Concert Series to fold under the weight of aging, diminishing audiences. Nerenberg, who started as a volunteer in 1995 and was hired as the organization's first full-time manager two years later, has been largely instrumental in turning things around.

His ear for talent is as pronounced as his willingness to take programming risks; Shriver Hall audiences have been exposed to some great, off-the-beaten-path repertoire in recent seasons. This hasn't gone down well with everyone; some old-timers weren't too keen on having the cutting-edge Kronos Quartet onstage last season, for example.

Nerenberg is exactly what Shriver needed - and needs. He's exactly what this city could use more of. He's going to be a tough act to follow.

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