Bach Choir’s Stephen Rowley bows out in style

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:

JS BACH – Cantata No.140 “Wachet auf, ruft die Stimme”
– Cantata No.191 “Gloria in excelsis Deo”
Traditional Carols for choir and audience

Nicola Holt (soprano)
Adrian Lowe (tenor)
Simon Christie (baritone)
The Bach Choir of Wellington
The Chiesa Ensemble (Rebecca Struthers – leader)
Douglas Mews (organ)
Stephen Rowley (conductor)

St.Joseph’s Church, Mt.Victoria, Wellington

Saturday 6th December 2014

This concert marked the conclusion of conductor Stephen Rowley’s tenure as music director of the Bach Choir of Wellington, a position he took over from Nigel Williams in 2008. A glance at the repertoire performed by the choir during this time attests to the rich variety of music experienced by the group under Rowley’s expert direction. Appropriately, his final collaboration with the choir featured the music of Bach, as well as appropriately involving the audience via a selection of well-known carols.

I had not been in the venue, St.Joseph’s Church in Mt.Victoria, since the old church was demolished in 2003 and the completely new building constructed. I must confess that the updated result feels to my antediluvian sensibilities less like a church than a concert hall, and, in fact  the acoustic amply justifies its use as such. Being a last-minute arrival at the concert I had to be content with seats that were so far to one side of the centre that I thought the performing balances would seem somewhat awry – but I was instead charmed by the clarity and warmth of the sound from my ostensibly unfavourable position.

Centrally-placed and to the back of the altar-area was the choir, with the soloists in the front row, immediately behind the orchestra, the Chiesa Ensemble (a period-performance ensemble made up of a group of NZSO players), and with the organist over to one side at the console, the conductor standing midships in front of the audience.Though the soloists and instrumentalists weren’t facing me, their tones were given sufficient ambient warmth to carry throughout the venue.

Cantata 140 began the concert, a gorgeous work, though one with the initial misfortune to have been written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, a liturgical date which occurs only when Easter is more than usually early. Fortunately, present-day performances of these works rely far less on prompting by actual dates, even if the occasional co-incidence brings extra festivity and feeling for the occasion.

Some extraordinarily difficult part-writing in the opening “Wachet auf” for chorus in places tested but didn’t defeat the choir, and the instrumental support was glorious. The following tenor recitative, “Er kommt, er kommt, der Brautigam kommt” brought out both clarion tones and sweetly-turned lines in other places from the soloist, Adrian Lowe, after which Nicola Holt and Simon Christie undertook their aria duet “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?” to my ears taking a few measures to get the “pitch’ of the lines, before settling down with some lovely “floated” notes.

Then came the famous “Zion hört die Wächter singen” with its much-loved melody dancing in tandem with the chorale-like step-wise utterances of the tenor soloist, the juxtaposition of the two making for a fine edge of contrasted separation which kept the contact-points open. This was a lovely, buoyant performance, giving the lie to the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s amusing but gratuitous remark about the dreariness of Bach’s “Protestant counterpoint”.

From here on the performance really fired, with the deeply-felt bass recitative “So geh herein zu mir” galvanized by another duet from Nicola Holt and Simon Christie “Mein Freund ist mein”, during which the pair really sparkled, aided and abetted by lovely oboe playing and strong continuo support from Eleanor Carter’s cello, with Douglas Mews, as always, a tower of strength at the organ. Stephen Rowley’s direction produced a full-throated response from the choir throughout the final chorale “Gloria sei dir gesungen”.

A warm sense of audience involvement was established through interspersing a performance-bracket of carols with some traditional favorites. We all enjoyed ourselves no end, being entertained in between times by the choir’s performances of Terence Maskell’s arrangements of various medieval carols. The men introduced Alleluya, a new work is come on hand in great style and with terrific verve, contrasting this with a gentler treatment of In dulci jubilee. A trio of women’s voices nicely projected There is a flower over wordless accompaniments, with well-controlled variants (some nervous “alleluias” notwithstanding), and finishing with the original threesome over gentle wordless harmonies once again.

Though these weren’t the Maori words I taught my school choirs back in the days of yore, I nevertheless enjoyed the colour-tones of the Maori-English sounds in Silent Night. I loved the choral writing for A spotless rose, all wind-blown and out-of-doors, giving the choir plenty of vertiginous lines to hold onto, though the descents into quiet concluding cadences obviously brought some relief. Everybody sounded more at home with Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, the women energetic and true, and the men’s off-beat entries nicely managed. I didn’t know the concluding Wexford Carol but it was a joy to hear the piece open up and knit together, the writing allowing men and women a varied and satisfying interaction of dynamics and colours.

Cantata 191 was one I didn’t know – or so I thought! – how wonderful, therefore, to be presented with the opening of the B Minor Mass’s “Gloria” right at the outset! This, the only cantata that uses Latin, is based on an even earlier work written by JSB in 1733, one which, in true Baroque fashion, he used in his B Minor Mass fifteen years later – but three years earlier he had put together this cantata for a Christmas Day service in Leipzig from much the same music. What a guy!

As with the opening of other “festive” works by Bach – the Christmas Oratorio, and the Magnificat come immediately to mind – this music instantly galvanizes the spirit, the thrill of those opening brass calls punctuated by timpani giving one goosebumps (especially when, as here, the pleasure was an unexpected one!). And the choir held its own up splendidly in the midst of these festive sounds, all of the voices matching the instrumentalists in exuberance at the beginning, and the women doing well with their lines at “bonae voluntatis”, the different sections handling the ensuing contrapuntal lines with aplomb.

The work’s second part is a shortened setting of the beautiful duet “Domine Deus” from the same “Gloria”, here, using a different text – this was an enchanting sequence, beautiful flute-playing at the beginning, and soprano and tenor completely at ease together, filling out their lines with winsome grace, and intertwining their voices most beguilingly, as did the flutes with and around the string accompaniments.

The choir’s vigorous attack at the finale’s beginning “Sicut erat in principio” was echoed by brass and timpani, the performers relishing both words and musical phrases, keeping the momentum buoyant and the tones festive and bright. The voices kept their trajectories on task throughout the demanding “et nun et semper” sections – Bach’s writing is characteristically challenging, and at times the ensemble lost its poise for a measure or three, though never for too long, strings, flutes, oboes and brass made bright, pungent tonal combinations, underpinned by the timpani, the music joyously driving to a heartwarming conclusion.

A presentation to Stephen Rowley from the Choir itself followed immediately after the concert – the occasion made for a happy and successful conclusion to what seems to have been an interesting and colourful era in the Bach Choir’s history.


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