“Medieval Hymn” filled the acoustically rich Carmel Mission Basilica Wednesday evening July 18. There is a continuing tradition with the Chorale of the Bach Festival, under the direction of Andrew Megill, to present a candle light program. Escorted by the red robed Bach Festival Candle Bearers, the Chorale entered while singing a traditional plainchant Jesu dulcis amor meus. Beginning with the tenor/bass sounding as herald trumpets, this was perfectly timed with tenor/bass alternating verses with soprano/alto to reach their positions backlit by the stand of twenty tall tapers. Works of Dieterich Buxtehude, Tomas Luis De Victoria, Anton Bruckner, Knut Nysted, and, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach, were cleverly woven together.
Borrowing from Megill’s extensive notes, Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri is a cycle of seven cantatas. Each addresses a body part of Christ that was wounded in the crucifixion. Within these sections the opening sinfonia was played by members of the Bach Festival Orchestra then the full chorale sang the introduction and closing framing the solo, and trio singers expanding the inner texts.
Program notes and translations made following along easy even in the softly lit setting. Cantatas began with Ad Pedes (to the feet) followed by Ad Genua (to the knees), Ad Manus (to the hands), Ad Latus (to the sides), Ad Pectus (to the breast), Ad Cor (to the heart), and finally Ad Faciem (to the face). Between parts III and IV, the first of three motets, the Victoria Versa Est in Luctum was inserted. The full ensemble with an amazing blend of voices beautifully spun this expressive motet of lamentation. The Bruckner Christus Factus Est, again part of the Holy Week Liturgy, was set between parts IV and V. Of the seven cantatas, five were framed with full chorus, while the V and VI parts were exquisitely sung by two contrasting trios of voices. The third motet, Nysted’s O Crux with its jarring dissonance, was a further reminder of the agony of the crucifixion yet sung with amazingly beautiful control of the dissonance.
With Bach so often thought of as the gold standard, it is sometimes easy to forget that even Bach was influenced by what came before. As the story goes, as a young man, Bach is said to have walked 250 miles in order to hear Buxtehude. Listening, comprehending, appreciating and then expanding on what came before is a hallmark of the greatest composers. As a finale to the evening’s program, the Choral recessed to Bach’s O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. Again, the tenor/bass led the way alternating with the soprano/alto voices until at the very back the full ensemble ended with their continued exquisite ensemble losing none of the impact for being outside.
Noting the background of these stellar singers and their conductor could take pages! Suffice to know that each has an extensive pedigree yet together the ensemble has impeccable blend. Megill’s programing and his direction of the Chorale and instrumental ensemble continues to raise the bar of what is possible at this longstanding candle light Carmel Mission concert. The program book has the complete text and notes for this evening and is an education in itself. This program will be presented again on Wednesday, July 25th.