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Santa Rosa Symphony / Friday, December 5, 2008
Santa Rosa Symphony, Sonoma County Bach Choir, conducted by Robert Worth. Soloists Carol Menke, Jenni Samuelson, Christopher Fritzsche, Jos Milton, Hugh Davies

Maestro Bruno Ferrandis


by David Parsons
Friday, December 5, 2008

On the final stretch of Venice’s Grand Canal, over the water from St. Mark’s, stands the gleaming white church of Santa Maria della Salute. On Nov. 21 every year, special masses are held at the familiar landmark church to remember the city’s deliverance from the plague of 1630, and a temporary votive bridge is erected over the Grand Canal. The celebration is one of the most heart-felt in Venice, and is called the Festa della Salute. It was probably for the first such ceremony, when the foundations were laid for the church in 1631, that Monteverdi composed his festal “Gloria à 7 Voci,” eventually published in his 1641 collection “Selva morale e spirituali.”

This past weekend, at three different Sonoma County churches, the anniversaries of this Gloria and other seasonal Baroque works were celebrated in truly festive style with members of the Santa Rosa Symphony and the Sonoma County Bach Choir, with Robert Worth conducting. This reviewer attended the Friday concert with a nearly full house at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Petaluma; the others were held at St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Santa Rosa and at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor. Tempo and balance need to be carefully adjusted in the varying acoustics of these churches, but in the rich acoustic in Petaluma at least, conductor and performers rose to the occasion and allowed their ears to be their guides to what worked in the building. It was almost as if they were learning from the aural feedback as the evening progressed; a few balance problems between soloists and choir early in the Monteverdi were quickly resolved.

Owing to the situation of the pews and chancel rail at the front of the church, the orchestra and choir were behind the rail, whereas the soloists were in front of it, with Mr. Worth right in the middle at the chancel rail entrance. This meant that the soloists were slightly behind the conductor and had more than usual to use peripheral vision to see him. Further, when the soloists sat in the front pew between movements, they curiously had to turn around to sit with their backs to the audience. But to such seasoned singers as Carol Menke and Jenni Samuelson, sopranos, Christopher Fritzsche, countertenor, Jos Milton, tenor, and Hugh Davies, baritone, these logistical niceties did not pose a problem, and after a couple of ragged cutoffs in the Monteverdi, everyone got used to the situation. The only pronounced gaps between movements occurred in the second half of the concert, when some players had to clean their instruments.

The celebratory Monteverdi Gloria alternated choral and solo/duet sections, using permutations of combinations of soloists. The dazzling first exclamations of “Gloria!” ceded to the misterioso of “Et in terra pax” in long note values. The full chorus interpolated at places like the “Gratias agimus” and “Tu solus altissimus,” and further solo sections finally led to even more brilliant choral writing at “In Gloria Dei Patris, Amen!” All the vocal pyrotechnics were accompanied by the strings and continuo alone, without the complement of trombones that Monteverdi advertised as an optional performance addition. Although omitted from the program listing, Phebe Craig of UC Davis was the able continuo organist.

From festive visions of Venice in late November 1631, we moved to Paris at Christmas around 1690, when Marc-Antoine Charpentier was director of music at the Jesuit Church of St. Paul in the Marais district. It was the Christmas Eve custom in churches with a good organist to celebrate the Midnight Mass with a recital of noël variations beforehand. For his “Messe de Minuit pour Noël,” Charpentier went one step further and appropriated the music of 11 different noëls for his themes in the mass itself. These tunes lent the work a charming simplicity, and the congregation would surely have hummed along to the noëls they knew so well. Charpentier also created new material, such as the slow sections “Et in terra pax” at the beginning of the Gloria and “Et incarnatus est” in the Credo. It is a credit to the prolific composer’s genius that these quite different idioms are so seamlessly and convincingly blended together. Throughout the Messe the noël tunes are jaunty and tender by turns, perfect for the families who may have gathered for the Midnight service. Only in the Credo, at the more serious words “Judicare vivos et mortuos” does the character change from the childlike simplicity that we love.

For this work the choir and soloists caught the atmosphere of a candlelit late Christmas Eve: nothing overstated, nothing overbearing, but with due attention to the solemnity and joy of the occasion. The instrumentation—strings and continuo joined by two flutes—supports this less theatrical atmosphere, and more even than in the Monteverdi, the organ continuo gives the colors of the strings a new, transfigured aura. The acoustic at St. Vincent’s Church provided a perfect backdrop for these magical tone colors.

A touch of genius prompted Charpentier to take a noël with the text of “All citizens of Châtre, rejoice and be carefree; Be festive and enjoy this jolly day of peace; For Jesus Christ is born of the Virgin Mary” for the mass setting of “Laudamus te, benedicimus te.” The same touch is apparent in the last movement of the Messe, the Agnus Dei, sung at just about midnight, in which he sets the noël “A minuit fut fait un reveil”: “At midnight there was an awakening.” Can this be a subtle reference, both to the midnight hour and to the famous French midnight supper called the Réveillon, celebrated at home after Midnight Mass?

A few quibbles to pose for future forays into Charpentier and other French Baroque composers’ work: Are we certain what sort of flute would have been used in a Paris or Versailles church in the 1690s? Although the transverse flute that we know so well was available by 1690, a church ensemble was likely to be a bit more old fashioned than the up-to-date court, and the flutes in use were almost certainly recorders. Next time it would be nice to try the Messe with recorders. The organ interludes that are interspersed throughout the Messe are also based on noëls. It would likewise be lovely to use them in a future performance of the work.

American choirs expend effort working on their correct German and French pronunciation when they sing in those languages. Likewise they must learn how to pronounce Latin correctly. Much of the time when they sing mass settings, the composers are Italian, and they rightly pronounce the Latin in an Italian way. But what if the composer of Latin texts is French? A French Latin pronunciation is different, and gives a definite Gallic feel to the words. For this performance of the Charpentier, the singers used familiar Italianate Latin pronunciation, but it would not be difficult to learn the slight differences in pronunciation that would allow for a fitting French Latin approach.

Last quibble: In music, notes inégales (French: unequal notes) refers to a performance practice in which some notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short, making some rhythms “swing” more than they are actually notated. The practice was especially prevalent in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. It would be lovely to sing and play the Charpentier using notes inégales. The rollicking, jolly, folk-sounding noëls would be even more infectious with the more snappy inégales rhythms. Next time!

The second half of the program was devoted to Bach’s Cantata 36, “Schwingt freudig euch empor” (Soar joyfully aloft), dating from 2 December 1731. Our Baroque celebration thus spanned exactly a century, from 1631 to 1731. Although for this church work Bach reused music from earlier cantatas, he eliminated the earlier works’ recitatives in favor of chorales appropriate to the first Sunday of Advent. Thus there are four chorale movements, three of which are drawn from Luther’s hymn “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” If the Monteverdi Gloria dazzled with its vigor, the opening chorus of the Bach was even more brilliant, with spiraling, rocketing figurations in the orchestra surrounding shouts of delight in the chorus. Nor were trumpets needed for these effects; the singers and strings were joined only by two oboes d’amore and bassoon on the continuo line.

The second movement was a setting of the first stanza of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” set for soprano and alto with the oboes and bassoon and continuo. The angular lines of the chorale tune, with its characteristic diminished fourth interval, make for tricky tuning, but the whole was handled with aplomb by Carol Menke and Christopher Fritzsche. The only aria in the cantata’s first part is for tenor with solo oboe d’amore and bassoon continuo; it is a charming dance-like movement, the text casting Jesus in the familiar role of bridegroom of the enraptured soul. Here Jos Milton shone, with gleaming high notes, through the text which Bach imposed upon the music taken from the earlier cantatas. The memorable rolling bass line in the setting of stanza 6 from the chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” which closes the first part, was clearly a favorite moment for the choir.

The strings alone accompanied the opening of the cantata’s second half, a jolly bass aria sung beautifully by Hugh Davies. Bach did the singer no favors with his text underlay here; breaths are difficult to come by amid the avalanche of notes, a problem that had not been so extreme with the texts of the earlier cantatas from which the music was taken. In the next movement, Worth had the entire chorus sing in unison on the setting of stanza 6 of “Nun komm.” In a very fast tempo, the two oboes and continuo create a trio sonata texture, against which the choir intoned the chorale in long note values. The most enchanting music of the whole cantata was in the following soprano aria, featuring Jenni Samuelson against violin solo and continuo. She memorably conveyed the haunting concept of the text, whereby the soul even feebly and alone can give praise to God. Nor did Bach neglect a tongue-in-cheek effect when setting the words “E’en with our muted, feeble voices Is God’s great majesty adored,” for he instructed the violin to use its mute throughout. The cantata closes with the eighth stanza of “Nun komm,” but Worth wisely elected to reprise the vigorous first movement after singing the chorale, as a fitting end to the evening’s celebration of Baroque Christmas music.

Busy Jenni Samuelson, Hugh Davies and the Sonoma County Bach Choir appear again with the Santa Rosa Symphony next weekend, singing Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, with Bruno Ferrandis conducting.