By Lawrence Toppman
One can drown happily in words at the main Bach Akademie Charlotte concerts: Helpful words from artistic director/host Scott Allen Jarrett, erudite words in Brett Kostrzewski’s essays in the program guide — surely the most elaborate and attractive in Charlotte — librettists’ words projected on walls behind the chorus, and inspiring words expertly sung by Baroque specialists from around North America.
So for once, let’s think about something else.
Consider the way concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky’s consoling violin, warm but not schmaltzy, reassured us of bliss as she accompanied a trio of singers wondering when salvation would come in J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Or the way principal trumpeter Josh Cohen brought high clarion interjections to the cantata “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens,” mirroring the text about awakening our senses.
The longer you listened to the final concert of the 2023 season, broadcast live Tuesday by WDAV-FM, the more details you heard. The wooden flutes of Colin St. Martin and Alaina Diehl, warmer and more rustic sounding than metal instruments, struck a pastoral note in the opening cantata. The continuo playing of cellist Guy Fishman and bassist Sue Yelanjian laid down a subtle but solid carpet of sound underneath the vocalists.
Naturally, the singers performed admirably. Gene Stenger stood out as the Evangelist and tenor soloist in the last section of the Christmas Oratorio, repudiating foes of Christianity (especially Herod) in the one really dramatic moment of that cycle of six cantatas. Yet I stayed attuned to the instrumentation even then, enjoying the way Margaret Owens and Kristin Olson cushioned his voice with their mellow oboes d’amore.
One of the two most exciting moments of the night came at the very beginning, as the whole orchestra bounced into the opening to “Unser Mund.” Bach repurposed the overture to his fourth orchestral suite for this cantata, adding trumpets and timpani (played grandly by Jonathan Hess), and Myers Park Presbyterian Church rocked with the rich sound.
Interestingly enough, the other highlight was the most ethereal. Jarrett conducted the eight-minute “Heilig” (Holy”) of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most gifted of Johann’s sons and the most interesting Classical Era composer behind Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
Four soloists representing angels ascended to the rear balcony of the church, leaving the other 12 members of the chorus up front behind the orchestra. After a graceful alto solo by Sylvia Leith, the angels and humans entered a strange but instantly appealing dialogue. The humans sang conventional praise of God in robust fashion, while the celestial quartet quietly explored less conventional harmonies. (I wonder how far God’s tastes go. Would the Lord occasionally plug Arnold Schoenberg’s astringent cantata “A Survivor from Warsaw” into the heavenly iPod?)
As I listened, I wished for one more thing besides a chance to hear a wider range of composers at future festivals: Pieces that highlight only the orchestra, perhaps even soloists within it. Choral singing lies at the heart of BAC’s approach, but surely a Brandenburg Concerto wouldn’t be out of line. If C.P.E. Bach appeals to Jarrett, as he does to me, why not let Fishman take a crack at his A minor cello concerto?
The Akademie has done a first-rate job of balancing vocal works large and small, deep and uncomplicated, by J.S. Bach for six years. Could it be time to think more broadly about the 18th century, without abandoning the German master who gives the festival its name and mission?