Music of the Baroque and Bach is all good

By Alan Artner, Chicago Tribune
October 20, 2015

Most everything goes right whenever Music of the Baroque presents the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and that happened again Monday night as principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer began the group's season downtown at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The program focused on the cantata, the multimovement vocal piece with instrumental accompaniment of which Bach was an extraordinary master. He wrote more than 200 cantatas for sacred and secular use.

Kraemer offered three, all technically sacred, though the most unusual one was for the inauguration of town council members. The others were church cantatas written as brief theological lessons to be given on specific days.

Those — "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" and "Ich habe genug" — are among the most popular of all Bach's cantatas. One being with chorus plus solo voices and the other for only solo bass gave the first half of concert sonic variety despite the works' familiarity.

Part of the challenge in "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough") comes from something Bach never imagined. The work's yearning for death carries an intensity that has attracted some of the world's most subtle word painters, male and female, on recordings and off.

So a performer today additionally faces listener memories of such singers as bass-baritone Hans Hotter, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and even countertenor Andreas Scholl.

Kraemer's soloist was baritone Roderick Williams who persuasively shaded his three arias from ardent appeal to gentleness to joy. Moments in both the appeal and joy edged close to pushed expressiveness, but the still point that came between, a lullaby, was tender perfection, with the orchestra's tone beautifully softening to support the mood.

"Wachet auf …" (Awake, calls the voice to us") is not as complex emotionally, and there Kraemer's unforced, natural-seeming way with Bach carried the day. The diction of William Jon Gray's chorus was crisp throughout. Soprano Sherezade Panthaki and Williams' duets had winning simplicity. Tenor Thomas Cooley's recitative enlivened with a touch of urgency. And extended playing of violin and oboe was a delight.

The added colors of a larger orchestra including recorders, trumpets and drums gave greater richness to "Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn" ("Praise, O Jerusalem, Thy God"). Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera ably joined the other soloists, though the writing for them is less memorable than for the instrumentalists, whose fabric gleamed brilliantly with red and gold.