WASHINGTON, D. C.-During the holiday season, it is very easy to remain comfortable with presenting both familiar and traditional musical repertoire. Amateur and professional choral music ensembles alike enjoy their share of traditional carol-sings, Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Bach’s Magnificat in D and even the Christmas Oratorio of Saint-Saens. On Sunday, December 19, The Washington Bach Consort presented a program of music from the early Baroque Period, which according to some historians began around 1570 in Italy. Perhaps the most important composer of that period was Claudio Monteverdi, the composer of the glorious Vespers of 1610, which is probably one of the more frequently performed works of this early period. J. Reilly Lewis conducted the consort in an all a cappella program of delightfully unfamiliar sacred polyphony including music by Byrd, Vulpius, Aleotti, Praetorius, Sweelinck and Morago. In his opening remarks, Lewis expressed the sentiment of the program being full of new discoveries. The Washington Bach Consort did not disappoint in the extraordinary program that followed.
Beginning with a processional piece by Juan Pérez Bocanegra, “Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” the consort entered the sanctuary of the National Presbyterian Church accompanied by a primitive drum. (LISTEN TO A SIMILAR PERFORMANCE HERE) The choral sound in this particular piece for the most part moved hymn-like in nature and worked wonderfully as an entrance piece. Organist Scott Dettra then offered J. S. Bach’s “Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich herr,” BWV 738. Dettra made effective use of the organ registrations during the entire program, for the most part playing with delightful, colorful flutes, with the occasion reed stop.
Organ music from the Baroque linked the sections of the program wonderfully together and never was a distraction from the choral focus of the program. Rather, Dettra was a key component to the variety offered in the program. He did not simply just wait his turn to perform his organ pieces, but also gave support to Reilly and the singers by remaining on hand to give choral pitches. There were many new gems discovered in this concert. In “Quem vidistis pastores” it was noted the lovely interplay between the women’s and men’s voices. The men particularly blended nicely, which was evident when both parts joined together in unison. Deering’s piece presented a visual picture of joyous expectation as the voices rose in a dance-like “Alleluia.” A new jewel in this new crown of music for Christmas was “Benevestnaya Devo” by Vasily Titov. Reverently moving in nature, the voices of the consort brought forth a warm, hushed sound that created such an ethereal presence. Maestro Lewis conducted with great expression, with the consort yielding to every gesture.
In the “Beata es, Virgo Maria” of Giovanni Gabrieli, the sopranos seemed to over compensate at times and thus escaped the center of pitch in some of the sustained passages. Overall, the music of the program was generally in the upper tessitura of their voices throughout and it was remarkable the amount of stamina the consort mustered up to maintain the vitality in such a complex program. “Serenissima una noche” by Geronimo Gonzalez was accompanied by a bongo and was a lovely, lilting serenade. Ending the first half was “Fugue,” K. 41 by Domenico Scarlatti.
The second half of the program opened with the organ piece “In dir ist Freude” by J. S. Bach. This was probably one of the few times in the program where the Dettra played the organ with a more robust, fuller registration. His virtuosity and coordination at the instrument was simply remarkable. Bright registrations and a moving tempo invoked a sense of joy. Following was a larger setting of the Magnificat by Hieronymous Praetorius. Unique to this setting was the presence of the familiar Christmas hymns “In sweet joy” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine.” “Upon my lap the Sovereign sits” by Martin Peerson was masterfully sung with a beautifully achieved legato. The altos and tenors particularly added a warm center to the piece with the basses being a solid anchor of support. In this reverent work, the sopranos hovered like angels, floating gently above. A favorite of organist during the Christmas season, “Noël Grand Jeu et Duo” by Louis Daquin was an opportunity well-taken by Dettra to showcase the nice reed stops of the organ and use of ‘echo effect’ between the swell and great of the instrument. Ending the program was the “Hodie Christus natus est” by Heinrich Schütz.
Accompanied by Dettra at the organ, J. Reilly Lewis led the ensemble in the final work of the concert. The capacity audience who gathered for this adventure in “new” choral music for Christmas was hardly disappointed. Rapturous applause resounded for J. Reilly Lewis and The Washington Bach Consort. Organist and Associate Conductor Scott Dettra was with good reason lavished upon enthusiastic applause, as well. It was especially wonderful to sense the great rapport between the two musicians and how that coupled with the vocal beauty of the singers, which resulted in a magnificent evening of music making.