When I lived in Chicago, I was intrigued with the popularity of a shoppers’ chapel in the Loop that offered a mid-afternoon Roman Catholic Mass. Located midway between the fancy restaurants of Michigan Avenue and the bargain-filled department stores of State Street, the chapel drew a regular crowd of consumers laden with their day’s worth of purchases.
In this urban bustle, I mused, there must be something more than just getting and spending.
Wednesday (Nov. 14) at noon, a downtown San Diego crowd—minus the shopping bags—filled the chapel of First Lutheran Church of San Diego for another mode of spiritual devotion, an early music concert by the BachCollegium San Diego. Under the astute but ever low-keyed direction of Ruben Valenzuela, a dozen choristers and instrumentalists presented an elegant offering of music by Bach and Buxtehude to a rapt audience.
When it comes to riveted attention and emotional engagement, I would award first prize to an audience of Bach lovers over the most pious Christian congregation, and that is no slur on the latter. Fortunately, Valenzuela and his musical colleagues reliably reward their audiences with stylish, historically informed performances that warrant a listener’s complete involvement.
This program balanced a mellifluous Dietrich Buxtehude cantata for solo soprano and strings, “Schaffe in mir Gott,” with J. S. Bach’s more robustly contrapuntal choral cantata “Der Herr denket an uns,” BWV 196. Soprano Jenny Spence’s light, supple instrument gracefully articulated Buxtehude’s vocal traceries, although I could imagine a more ardent vocal approach to this cantata. She did impart more zeal in the cantata’s last movement, particularly on the repeated text “freudige Geist” (joyful Spirit), which proved a saving grace.
Bach’s Cantata No. 196, an unusually cheerful opus and one of his earliest sacred cantatas, was written for a wedding, which certainly explains the text of the charming bass and tenor duet (in translation) “May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children.” The composer, who would sire some 21 children, certainly could identify with the aspiration of such a text.
Valenzuela assigned one voice per part, and his vocal quartet filled the room, which seats no more than 150, with a lively, colorful sonority. I particularly liked the virile yet agile bass voice of Patrick Walders, who, with tenor John Russell, gave the cantata’s duet such verve and thoughtful tone painting. The final chorus, with its spirited “Amen” coda, suggested the energy and flare of a much larger ensemble. Alto Katie Walders and soprano Jenny Spence completed the choir.
We had the opportunity to hear by themselves the small coterie of strings that accompanied the voices in Buxtehude’s Trio Sonata[php snippet=1] in E Minor, Op. 1, No. 7, which featured BachCollegium’s concertmaster Pierre Joubert. Always animated and inventive, Joubert relished the sonta’s lush Italianate figuration and quirky, meandering structure. Sally Jackson on Baroque bassoon gave notable clarity and sparkle to the bass line, and Valenzuela provided clear, sturdy continuo support on the chamber organ.
Valenzuela directed all of the ensemble pieces from the organ, no small feat, and opened the concert with a rousing, passionate solo performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, on harpsichord. Well, the fugue was not passionate, but then a fugue is not supposed to be. It was, however, cleanly constructed and rhythmically secure throughout.
BachCollegium San Diego will continue to offer these free noon concerts at First Lutheran Church on the second Wednesday of every month except in February, 2013. In February, the second Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and there will be the customary church ritual on that day at noon. Attendance that day will be required, I am told by the church’s pastor, for those who miss any of the rest of the BachCollegium Wednesday concerts.
Singers: Jenny Spence, Katie Walders, John Russell, Patrick Walders.
Orchestra: Pierre Joubert & Amy Want, violins; Adriana Zoppo, viola; Heather Vorweck, cello; Sally Jackson, bassoon; Daniel Zuluaga, theorbo; Ruben Valenzuela, harpsichord & organ.
BachCollegium San Diego www.bachcollegiumsd.org