Bach Festival Mission concert

By Scott MacClelland

The second performance by Andrew Megill’s Carmel Bach Festival Chorale program resonated grandly last Wednesday at a sold-out Carmel Mission Basilica. Its 70-minute duration showed off the subtlety and power of the Chorale, with its many fine solo voices, and its interaction with different combinations of late Renaissance and early Baroque instruments. It featured masterpieces of early 17th century Italian music that established a foundation on which contemporary German composers constructed their own styles. Megill and his singers framed the colorful program with a candlelit plainchant processional and recessional.

Giovanni_GabrieliMegill’s program annotation laid out the Venetian formal practices and the theatrical innovations of Giovanni Gabrieli (left) and his successor at Basilica San Marco, situated in the heart of “La serenissima,” Claudio Monteverdi (below). The latter built on the former early in the program. Gabrieli’s In ecclesiis, a stunning display of polychoral techniques, including divided groups singing in antiphonal call and response, has often be cited as the composer’s magnum opus. For it the Chorale encircled the orchestra of theorbos (archlutes), cornetti, sackbuts, strings and keyboards. The nine-minute piece began with reduced forces then suddenly erupted with explosive effect and hair-raising impact. The instrumental cameos suggested the grand interior of San Marco.

Two Germans who traveled to Venice to study and learn the Italian innovations were Michael Praetorius and Heinrich Schütz. The former was represented by his ‘greatest hit.’ a setting of the popular Christmas verse In dulci jubilo. (The sackbuts and cornetti had moved far back in the nave to emphasize antiphony.) The latter’s Saul, Saul, was vergolgest du mich (Saul, Saul, why persecutist me?), deep and dark, favored organ monteverdiand sackbuts. The Chorale singers were deployed in a rich and varied tapestry.

Between the two stood Monteverdi’s Beatus vir (Blessed is he), an ideal complement in spirit, style, variety and effect to the Gabrieli yet with surprisingly innovative tropes. Of similar duration, it also deployed the Chorale in a circle around the band. Monteverdi used ritornello conspicuously; the device was crucial to 18th century Baroque composers and would become the basis for classical tonal cadences.

Then came Monteverdi’s sensual, secular Sestina, at 15 minutes the longest piece on the program and a considerable departure from the style of the sacred Beatus vir. (For it, and the duration, the Chorale assembled in the traditional frontal configuration.) Sestina’s subtitle is “tears of the lover (by name Glauco) at the tomb of the beloved,” and in six verses alternately laments, cries out, tells how the sun and moon illuminate Glauco’s grief, and prays. These verses are sung in minor scales, with startling chromaticism, à la Gesualdo, but at their ends resolve to a major chord. Once again, the composer’s mastery of invention and emotional expression seem to know no limits. (He even imitates some medieval hocket.) In this case, the Chorale was accompanied by theorbos and keyboards only.

Johann Hermann Schein, an exact contemporary of Schütz, was represented by his Die mit Tränen säen (They that sow in tears). It seems Schein never traveled to Venice, but in his short life he plainly mastered that influence in polished and graceful style.

Finally, two a capella settings of Komm, Jesu, Komm, the first by JS Bach, the second by modern Swedish composer Sven-David Sandstrom. The Bach motet divides the choir in two for Italianate antiphony. The shorter Sandstrom, plainly homage to Bach, which also uses hocket effects, includes cameo solos and bits of agonizing harmony. It also revealed how loud, focused and penetrating Megill’s Chorale can be.