For classical music lovers, what better escape is there from the sanctimonious posers now polluting our media than to spend an hour or so soaking in the sublime music of Johann Sebastian Bach?
On Friday evening, Bach Collegium San Diego — in a performance that opened its 14th season — offered his cantatas as potential respite from the overpowering stench of this election season.
In the grandeur of Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, director Ruben Valenzuela led a small orchestra in a stirring performance of the Sinfonia from the cantata, “Am Abend aber desselbingen Sabbats, BWV 42.” Bach’s noble melodies, played in the finest manner of early music performance, cleansed our ears and bathed our souls. Take me away, Johann!
However, the rest of the first half rubbed our faces in contemporary muck, thanks to the anonymous Protestant author of the cantata, “Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchlei sei, BWV 179.”
That translates as “See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy.” The text warns against false piety, which Bach musically depicted with queasily chromatic lines in every vocal and instrumental part.
The cantata’s solution to hypocrisy may be dated to many — Don’t think you’re not a sinner, because you are, and you better beg God for mercy RIGHT NOW! — but self-righteous phonies are still with us, just as they were in the times of Jesus, Martin Luther and Bach.
The remaining cantata on the program was “Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet! BWV 70” (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!) It begins with a musical alarm to prepare for the end of the world. A musical portrait of Judgment Day is painted and the penultimate movement tranquilly depicts the serene beauty to come in Heaven for the saved.
This aria, and the preceding recitative invoking Judgment Day, was smoothly sung by Tyler Duncan, a baritone with a firm opera-hall-sized voice and gravity to his sound apparent even in his highest range.
It’s impossible to sing many of the phrases in Bach’s arias in one breath, but Duncan’s non-obtrusive breaths met that challenge. He negotiated giant leaps effortlessly.
An aria intended for an alto was sung by counter-tenor Reginald Mobley with pure, sweet tone. Cellist Heather Vorwerck mellifluously played a wide-ranging line that underpinned this entire movement.
Tenor Scott Mello and Soprano Margot Rood were effective in their solos, although Rood’s decrescendos on descending pairs of notes in her aria “Liebster Gott” struck me as more mannered than expressive.
All four soloists stepped back to join four more singers for the sections requiring chorus. The chorus cohered with attention to diction and intonation.
Strings, double reeds, and continuo musicians played with gusto or lyricism as required.
Kathryn Montoya and Lot Demeyer played pungently on oboes da caccia, the Baroque predecessor to the English horn. The range of the oboe da caccia is close to the English horns, but the oboe da caccia’s tone is darker and mellower.
For sheer exoticism, it’s hard to top the slide trumpet. It looks like a miniature trombone designed by a moron. Instead of a slide that elongates the instrument to obtain a lower pitch, the entire trumpet slides down and up on the mouthpiece tubing. It sounded as unwieldy to play as it looked, but Kathryn Adduci gave it her best.