Last night’s concert with the St. Thomas Leipzig Choir (Thomanerchor)and the Gewandhaus Orchestra featured music written for the 800th anniversary of the founding of St. Thomas, in addition to two Bach cantatas. The juxtaposition of old and new was a little startling, but most people seemed to take it in stride. As usual we only had a partial view of the performers because of all the pillars in the church.
The opening piece, “St. Thomas Easter Music,” was composed by the present cantor of St. Thomas, Georg Christoph Biller. The piece used a huge array of wind instruments and percussion, beginning with ominous chords representing darkness, which then broke into traditional triads representing light. The audience was given the music for “Christ ist erstanden” to participate in this 20-minute cantata, and at first the setting was very traditional, like a hymn. Later when we sung the chorale again, it was as an embellishment to a fantastic conglomeration of choral sound, winds and percussion. The composition also made reference to the tune, “Wir glauben” (which I just played on Trinity Sunday) and overall, it mixed traditional and contemporary elements. It’s definitely a piece I would want to hear again.
Then we heard Bach’s Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11))and while the group did not use period instruments, I thought it was still done somewhat stylistically. It is definitely scored for a festival occasion, and includes trumpets, horns, flutes, oboes, strings and continuo. The only thing that was a little strange was that the organist played the recitatives “secco” (dry) and the cellist carried over and connected all the bass notes.
The third piece was quite challenging to listen to, “To the Wind: Music for Pentecost” by Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926) with its many dissonances, referring to the Holy Spirit. The program notes called Henze’s characterization of Pentecost as sometimes “howling, humming, clinking or wailing, backed up each time by the timbre and musical figures of the respective instruments.”
The concert ended with Bach’s “Der Geist hilft” which was a great relief to the previous cacophony. The piece was composed by Bach for the funeral of the St. Thomas headmaster, Johann Heinrich Ernestic, and because the death was unexpected, Bach had only four days to prepare it. An interesting note in the program was that the final chorale may have been sung at the graveside, unaccompanied, since the boys of the St. Thomas did not take part in the actual burial.
Just a note about the BachFest: I have only reported on a few of the many concerts that are taking place here. Last night’s concert was event number 82 (!) so far this week, and altogether there will be 123 recitals, concerts, lectures, and services in these ten days. No one could possibly take in all this, and in fact, some events are concurrent so that you have to make a choice. Last night, Vreni Griffith chose to attend the opera, “Cleofide,” instead. In fact there were four major musical events happening concurrently last night. And guess what I was doing yesterday afternoon.