By Scott MacClelland
Andrew Megill and the Bach Festival Chorale delivered a dazzling program of nearly all unfamiliar music under the newly renovated roof of the Carmel Mission Basilica. An overflow audience arrived for the Wednesday Founders’ Memorial concert and sat on hard wooden benches for 100 minutes to take in a program that ranged from 13th century plainchant to works by living composers Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan. In a stroke of creative imagination, Megill organized the pageant around Solomon’s Song of Songs, in an a cappella setting by Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur (left), and simultaneously introduced this strikingly original composer to area audiences. Between sections of Daniel-Lesur’s Le cantique des cantiques was heard the astonishing Dominus regnavit by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772), a cantata that literally straddles the entire transition from the Baroque to the Classical style periods, at times synthesizing youthful Haydn and late Vivaldi. You may be forgiven for not knowing the name of Mondonville, another newcomer to the Bach Festival and hardly a household word—though you can find this very work in the on-line YouTube catalog. Megill’s program also included JS Bach’s motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 and cantata O ewiges Feuer, BWV 34, both with instrumental ensembles, the latter including three trumpets and timpani and a pair of wooden-headed silver flutes.
So far, this parade included a large dose of sensuality (Daniel-Lesur), a terrible flood of water (Mondonville) and no shortage of fire (Bach times two.) Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a prayer by the 17th century playwright, also cites fire (although Fauré’s setting replaces humility with the perfumed allure of repeating string and harp arpeggios.) In Cantique des cantiques, columns of smoke from burning myrrh and frankincense signal Solomon’s wedding entourage, only to be blown away by mighty winds from heaven, courtesy of MacMillan’s Factus est repente.
Although the Christian update of Song of Songs invokes Christ as bridegroom, the corpus of verses overall purports sensual love—no more so than in the erotic Enclosed Garden where Daniel-Lesur’s harmonies are as exotic as late Debussy. Here, the male voices sing the seduction while the women are wordless sirens (until the final line.) The last of Daniel-Lesur’s ‘songs,’ Epithalame (by definition, a wedding ode) restores the passion of a blazing fire that even floods of water cannot drown.
In his sacred settings, Bach remains the paragon of humility before God. In their short pieces, so do Pärt and MacMillan. But in this unique display of vocal art, God is also in nature, and in Love. Yet, you cannot say Bach is antithetical to love, nature or the sensual; after all he fathered twenty children. This highly coordinated production threw exceptional challenges at the Festival Chorale, which, within the rapid-fire pace of the evening, came through with unforgettable impact.