In most cities, once Labor Day rolls around, the major musical organizations launch their new season with galas and concerts. Here in San Diego, we observe September as the final month of summer, and the concert halls are empty.
Brave enough to ignore this local lethargy, Ruben Valenzuela and his plucky BachCollegium San Diego opened its eleventh season Friday (Sept. 27) at La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church with an impassioned concert of choral works by J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel. Choosing the year 1707 as his focal point, Valenzuela offered two major works composed by the young Handel and Bach for their respective patrons in that year.
I continue to be impressed with the vibrant, dramatic quality Valenzuela elicits from his choristers, who are few in number, but individually strong and vivid. Rather than amassing the typical oratorio chorus in which every singer is asked to blend with the other, he works with a dozen or so highly trained soloists to achieve a muscular sound that unlocks the true power of high Baroque music and complements the edgy timbre of period string instruments.
Handel’s “Dixit Dominus,” a large Latin Psalm setting commissioned by an Italian cardinal for a Marian festival, requires virtuosic singers with the operatic training the composer encountered during his three years’ stay in Italy.
Alto Angela Young Smucker conquered the sinuous lines of her demanding aria “Virgam virtutis tuae” with extravagant declamation and fluid phrasing, while sopranos Alice Teyssier and Anne-Marie Dicce delicately floated lines in their ravishing duo “De torrente.” In her solo aria “Tecum principium,Teyssier unleashed operatic power and boldly dramatic dynamics to communicate texts about “princely rank” and “holy splendor.”
The movements that called for the BachCollegium’s full ensemble raised the St. James rafters with pulsing jubilation, and the heaven-storming might of the grand fugue in “Juravit Dominus” took my breath away.
Bach never left Germany nor did he have at his disposal the kind of singers Handel readily found in Italy. Far from the world of opera, Bach’s sturdy chorale cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” written for a Lutheran Easter service in Mühlhausen, looks back on 200 years of Lutheran hymnody and Teutonic choral polyphony as practiced in the choir schools of city churches.
The cantata’s drama comes from the hymn text, written by Martin Luther to explain his theological take on Easter: a cosmic struggle between death and life, with an unequivocal “Hallelujah” exclamation placed at the conclusion of every stanza to confirm the victory of life over death. Like Handel, even Bach’s earliest choral polphony bristles with vigorous complexity, which the BachCollegium delivered with complete assurance.
Among the Bach soloists, bass Patrick Walders stood out for his fiery yet handsomely crafted aria “Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm,” in which Luther weaves together themes from Passover and Easter. Well-matched soprano Jenny Spence and tenor Scott Mello made the the florid ornamentation of their duet “So feiern wir das hohe Fest” dance with appropriate Easter joy.[php snippet=1]
Valenzuela’s tempos tended to the lively side, without feeling rushed, and the balance between instruments and voices rightly favored the latter. As usual, concertmaster Pierre Joubert set a stylish example for the strings, and the cellists and bassist Shanon Zusman undergirded the ensemble with unfailing, robust support. At the chamber organ and harpsichord, Michael Sponseller’s accompaniments were impeccably tailored and precise.
Between the two choral works, the string ensemble offered three mellifluous movements from Georg Muffat’s “Armonico Tributo No. 5 in G Major,” giving them a chance to shine on their own. Compared to Bach and Handel, Muffat is harmonically plain, but the inventive variations of the Passacaglia movement compensated after a fashion. Joubert’s solo excursions in the Muffat were aptly effusive.