Arts & Events

New: Berkeley Festival Closes in Style with Bach & Company

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday June 11, 2018 - 05:20:00 PM

For me, at least, and perhaps for many others as well, the final two days of the 2018 Berkeley Festival presented under the aegis of the San Francisco Early Music Society were dominated by the towering figure of Johann Sebastian Bach. For me, it all started with a 1:00 PM concert on Saturday, June 9, at St. Mark’s Church featuring an ensemble called Cantata Collective and featuring the amazing soprano Sherezade Panthaki. This was an all J.S. Bach concert featuring local instrument-alists who joined together just this year to form Cantata Collective dedicated to the cantatas of J.S. Bach. The members of Cantata Collective will be familiar to Bay Area audiences for their involvement in many prestigious local chamber music groups. Marc Schachman played oboe; violinists were Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss; violist was Anthony Martin; cellist was William Skeen; Kristin Zoenig played bass; and Avi Stein played organ and harpsichord. In the works where they teamed up with soprano Sherezade Panthaki, this was J.S. Bach at his best.  

Well, wait a minute. Bach at his best might have to be accorded to the Belgian choral ensemble Vox Luminis, which closed out the Festival with a superb 4:00 PM concert at First Congregational Church on Sunday, June 10. Of course, the program presented by Vox Luminis on Sunday was by no means all J.S. Bach. Rather, and this was an interesting twist, it was about J.S. Bach and his family and friends. In any case, we’ll forego for the moment consideration of this final Vox Luminis concert, and we’ll begin with the Saturday concert of Cantata Collective. First on their program was a suite of three sinfonias by Bach. These were largely showpieces for oboist Marc Schachman., although there were alos lovely passages for the organ and the strings. The second suite, Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe/I stand with one foot in the grave, was a slow, appropriately lugubrious piece in which Bach brilliantly portrayed the morbid fixation on death of early 18th century Lutheran culture in Germany. The third and final sinfonia, by contrast, was upbeat and lively. 

Following this opener, soprano Sherezade Panhaki came on stage to sing three arias by Bach. In the first aria, ”Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen/Dearest Jesus, my desire,” Pathanki’s sumptuous soprano was echoed and moved upwards by the oboe of March Schachman. This was a clever device that exhibited the vocal possibilities of both the human voice and a wind instrument. Needless to say, both the voice of Panthanki and the oboe of Schachman were exquisite. This was also the case in the latter two arias of this set. Sherezade Panthaki’s voice is perfectly suited to Bach. It is lush, sumptuous, and technically flawless. Likewise, Marc Schachman’s tone on oboe is plush, full, and technically flawless. Together with their fellow musicians of Cantata Collective they made beautiful music. 

Next on the program was J.S. Bach’s Overture in D Major, also known as his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major. For this performance, the Cantata Collective eliminated the trumpets; and Avi Stein switched from organ to harpsichord. This work’s second movement is the much-beloved Air on a G-String, beautifully played here by Cantata Collective. To close out the program, Sherezade Panthaki returned on stage to sing Bach’s Wedding Cantata; and here the vocal agility and lush tone of Sherezade Panthaki created wonders. I can’t imagine hearing a better vocal rendition of this great cantata than the one offered on Saturday at St. Mark’s Church by Sherezade Panthaki. This, as I said earlier, was Bach at his best. 

However, as I also said earlier, we might have to spread the title ”Bach at his best” between two groups heard here – Cantata Collective with Sherezade Panthaki, and the Belgian choral ensemble Vox Luminis, which latter performed the Festival’s closing concert at 4:00 PM on Sunday in First Congregational Church. By the way, Vox Luminis also gave a concert on Friday evening in which they performed five of J.S. Bach’s six motets. Alas, I had to miss that concert. But nothing could make me miss the Festival’s closing concert by Vox Luminis on Sunday. This concert was intelligently designed to focus on not only J.S. Bach but also on those who influenced him. For this concert, the choral group Vox Luminis was accompanied by leading local instrumentalists. Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski played violins; Cynthia Black and Aaron Westman played violas; Steven Lehning played violone; Charles Weaver played theorbo; and Haru Kitamika played organ.  

The Sunday concert opened with a work by Dietrich Buxtehude, Gott hilf mir/God help me. Buxtehude, of course, is the older musician whose music the young J.S. Bach so revered that he walked over fifty miles to hear Buxtehude perform. In the piece we heard Sunday, Vox Luminis bass Sebastian Myrus sang the opening solo, and his singing was echoed by the string section. Next we heard a work by Johann Pachelbel, who served as mentor to J.S. Bach’s eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach, in the town of Ohrdruf, not far from Eisenach where J.S. Bach spent the first twelve years of his life. However, when J.S. Bach’s parents both died, he was sent to live with Johann Christophe Bach in Ohrdruf; and there is a story that the twelve year-old J.S. Bach furtively managed to remove by night a score of Pachelbel’s music from a locked cabinet, copied it, and put the score back so his older brother, forty-three years his senior, wouldn’t notice it had been removed. Eventually, however, Johann Christophe discovered what was going on; and he forced his younger sibling to hand over the pirated copy of Pachelbel’s score. In Sunday’s concert, Vox Luminis countertenor Jan Kullmann was featured in this work by Pachelbel. The next work on Sunday’s program was one by Johann Christophe Bach himself, Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig/Lord, turn unto me and be my grace. A soprano, a bass, and two tenors opened this piece, then were joined by the full ten-person chorus of Vox Luminis. 

After intermission Vox Luminis returned to the stage to perform a second work by Dietrich Buxtehude, Herzlich Lieb hab ich dich/Heartfelt love have I for you, o Lord. This work was sung by an all female cast of vocalists -- three sopranos and a mezzo-soprano. Finally, to close out the concert, and to close the 2018 Berkeley Festival, Vox Luminis performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden/Christ lay in death’s bonds. All ten singers of Vox Luminis opened this work, while the work’s second set was sung by two sopranos accompanied only by organ and theorbo. Then the instrumental group joined in except for the violas. In the following set, six singers were accompanied by only organ and theorbo. Throughout this work J.S. Bach effectively varied the tonal textures of each segment by using different combinations of voices and instruments. The final set brought together all the singers and all the instruments for a heartfelt but humble and subdued finale in keeping with the Pietist leanings of J.S. Bach himself. As a conclusion and culmination to the 2018 Berkeley Festival, nothing could be more appropriate and more appreciated than this concert by Vox Luminis, the world’s finest choral ensemble. Moreover, the fact that their program situated the music of J.S. Bach in the context of music by other composers -- family members and esteemed colleagues--who influenced the development of J.S. Bach himself, made this concert all the more informative and memorable.