Recap: 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival ends with a grand and glorious finale

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

One can wonder how and why the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is relevant in a world of soundbites, digital samples, mp3 players and downloadable podcasts. What can an early 18th century composer say to a 21st century audience?

Plenty, and all you have to do is listen. And that’s just what a full house did in the Basilica of St. Adalbert for the final concert of the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

The 12th biennial festival ended with a grand and glorious finale with Bach’s Magnificat in D Major on Saturday, March 23, under the masterful leadership of its new Artistic Director Julian Wachner.

In his first season leading the festival founded 22 years ago, Wachner led soloists, the Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in a sold-out performance with no room to spare.

With no fewer than 125 singers in the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the performance was destined to be big and bold. With a fireball Artistic Director who’s a bundle of energy even at rest, it was destined to be even a little over-the-top.

Bach Magnificat at 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival

Bach was a good Lutheran, but his region of Germany was influenced somewhat by Catholic Austria. Liturgical texts in Latin were not unknown. Certainly Bach’s B minor Mass, arguably his greatest work of all, was in Latin.

The setting of “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord” from the Gospel of Luke is the first major, liturgical work by Bach using a Latin text. It’s also a wonderful piece of music that Wachner conducted with passion and precision in equal measure.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus sang the opening with bright buoyancy, sending waves of sound crashing through the sanctuary.

Wachner assembled a fine group of five soloists including soprano Molly Quinn, a last-minute substitute for Molly Netter, who had to withdraw from the performance. Accompanied by Ellen Sherman on the seldom-heard but charming oboe d’amore, Quinn sang with authority and reverence.

Second soprano Melissa Attebury delivered her solo aria with style and a little bit of sass. Tenor Bran Giebler sang nimbly on his aria with its bright tempo.

The bass declaims the text, “He that is mighty has magnified me,” and bass-baritone Dashon Burton gave his aria a robust performance in a sanctuary that isn’t especially kind to lower voices.

The chorus, which kicks it off, also gets the big finish. The four-part harmony was well-balanced on the penultimate chorus, and the concluding Gloria Patri was majestic and magnificent.

Linn Maxwell Keller, who founded the Grand Rapids Bach Festival in 1997, wanted the community-wide festival to be educational as well as entertaining and enlightening. Igor Stravinsky’s Variations on Bach’s “Vom Himmel Hoch” checked that box.

Stravinsky, as Wachner explained, set out to put a 20th century stamp on 18th century music for the unusual setting of chorus plus orchestra without any violins. Just two flutes, three oboes and three bassoons for winds; three trumpets and three trombones for brass; and three violas and harp for strings.

“It’s a very curious piece,” Wachner told the audience. “The first time I heard it at Tanglewood, I said, ‘What was that?’”

What it is, is a chorale of “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” followed by five variations, focusing separately on brass, on woodwinds, on choir and orchestra, on flutes and choir, and finally on harp and choir.

It was a fine performance by the chorus and orchestra. If nothing else, it demonstrated Wachner’s willingness to explore new territory and lead Bach fans on surprising new adventures.

The program opened with Bach’s Cantata No. 110, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” or “Our Mouth is Full of Laughter,” a cantata with four solo voices.

With each aria, Wachner adjusted the continuo instruments in a new and more interesting configuration.

The Symphony chorus filled the room with a big, lush sound on the texts, “Our mouth is full of laughter, and our tongue full of boasting for the Lord has done great things for us.”

The performance featured the sweet tenor voice of Brian Giebler, accompanied by Christopher Kantner and Ruth Bylsma in a beautiful flute duet, on the aria, “You thoughts and you senses, spring up from here.” Giebler was joined by Quinn for the duet, “Glory to God in the Highest,” two nicely matched voices with pizzicato continuo.

The bass aria, “Wake up, you veins and limbs, and sing joyful songs,” delivered powerfully by Dashon Burton alongside brilliant piccolo trumpet playing by Neil Mueller, was straight from Handel’s playbook for pomp and propulsion in equal measure.

With the final chorale, “Alleluia! God be Praised,” the chorus delivered a volume of sound that its composer could only imagine in his wildest dreams. But the Grand Rapids Bach Festival audience got enjoy each and every enchanting note.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM
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