November 14, 2014 Ars Lyrica archive

Bach and Sons: at the Café

Ars Lyrica: Music of the Baroque

by Patty Mayeux

November 14, 2014 — Imagine it is the eighteenth century. You are properly perched in a straight-back chair in the salon of one of your high society pals. The tight bodice of your gown is trimmed in lace: the voluminous silk skirt falls gracefully to the floor. The party-goers sit quietly but for the occasional flutter of delicate fans toward powdered faces. That was my fantasy while attending Ars Lyrica’s Music of the Baroque program, “Bach and Sons: at the Café” on Friday night. The patrons of Zilka Hall, Hobby Center, watched attentively and listened intently to the first piece, a flute concerto in G by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). The evening offered four very different pieces, beginning and ending with work by C.P.E. Bach and including “The American Girl” by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795) and “Coffee Cantata” by their father, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).  The flute concerto featured Colin St. Martin playing the traverso flute with six violins, a viola, a cello, a violone and harpsichord providing accompaniment. A quick search tells me the traverso is also known as a baroque flute, but what is a violone? Forgive both my ignorance and my sharing my newfound knowledge of baroque instruments, but isn’t learning something new one of the joys of attending performing arts events that aren’t in your wheelhouse? Another search tells me a violone is a double bass viol, the direct ancestor of the double bass, and can have three to six strings. It seems when Ars Lyrica offers a period piece, they are serious about which instruments they use. Artistic Director Matthew Dirst played a Flemish-style harpsichord while conducting the ensemble. Here is one detractor from the performance: it was difficult to hear that instrument among the flute and the strings, but it is minor compared to the pleasant airs that filled the hall. St. Martin’s solo for this flute concerto was melodic, wafting, with long runs of perfectly punctuated notes traveling up and down the scale. During the second movement, the flute sounded nearly soulful as the typical progression of a concerto moved from allegro to largo and ending with an energetic, hopeful and happy presto movement.  “The American Girl” followed with the addition of mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko singing the text in German, as written by Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737-1823). I have no  idea how beautiful the original words are, but the translation by Matthew Dirst (can you say Renaissance Man?) was, well…  “Fair is my maiden, fair as a cluster of grapes which, gleaming through the leafy arbor, is laden with sweet juice!” …poetic. As was Mesko’s expressive performance. It is one amazing thing to be able to sing a challenging work, it is another to do so with expression and emotion and yet another to all the while perfectly enunciate the German text. Mesko, dressed in an Asian-style magenta silk dress adorned with golden flowers, brilliantly cycled through love and admiration to fear, anger and the determination to fight off any evil threatening Saide, “my desire, my song.” After a brief intermission the house lights were turned down so we could fully enjoy the drama that unfolded on stage: “Coffee Cantata” by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the Bach we all know, the dad, even though in the 1700s C.P.E. Bach was the more popular Bach of the day. The coffee drama, with text by Christian Friedrich Heinrici (1700-1764), was a great change of pace. My fantasy of the salon performance vanished but was replaced with one of attending a small regional theater production of a playful drama between a dad and his daughter arguing over, of all things, her addiction to coffee.  Soprano Lauren Snouffer was at times pouty and then flirty back to pleading as she expressively conveyed her love of what I deem to be America’s favorite addiction, caffeine. The work was set in a contemporary setting complete with a barista, tenor Zachary Averyt, serving coffee to the musicians.  Baritone Mark Diamond played the dad who seemed overly preoccupied with his daughter’s behavior  (she sat at the table texting and drinking cup after cup of the good stuff) until she chimed in with her love of it, scoffing at whatever the dad offered by way of enticing her to quit. She loved coffee more than silver or gold or the latest fashion. Until he had a flash of inspiration which was promoted by a few quick sips from his flask: he would not allow her to take a husband unless she give up coffee. She quickly tossed the cup aside and picked up a bridal magazine, dreaming of a husband and wishing for a lover before bedtime in lieu of her now-forbidden caffeinated jolt. The entire piece was riddled with humorous moments that had the otherwise subdued audience laughing out loud. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of this piece written almost 300 years ago with the modern day that struck our collective funny bone. We laughed when the girl took a selfie with the barista and as the dad sat on the edge of the stage pleading his case to any agreeable listener. And when the barista informed us that the girl had secretly added the provision to her agreement that she would marry as long as she could brew herself coffee all day long. In the end, the girl did become engaged –– to the barista. The three of them sang “The cat won’t stop hunting mice and the girl will remain a coffee junkie” and happily sipped, no gulped, the wonderful brew. As they took their bows there were even a few bravos heard among the crowd.  The evening ended with another work by C.P.E. Bach: “Klopstock’s Morning Song on the Feast of Creation,” with text by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) and featuring all four vocalists. We were treated to the perfect vocal blend of Snouffer and Mesko as they sang the praises of God, awaiting the appearance of the sun: “Already the melodious breezes of the early hours waft and rustle and refresh! Already it flows in, the blush of the day, and heralds the resurrection of the dead sun.” Averyt and Diamond joined in with “Lord, Lord, God, gracious and merciful! We, your children, we more than suns must one day also set and will also rise again!”   I’m grateful to the Bach we all know and his sons who created beauty in their day that we continue to enjoy centuries later. I’m thankful that Ars Lyrica is intentional about preserving so much of the authenticity of those musical moments. Both have offered me this fantasy of enjoying an exclusive performance among friends in a private setting.