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Bach Goes (Back) to Church with Vespers

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 10, 2012 - 10:59:09 PM in reviews_2012, news_2012

Johann Sebastian Bach is alive and well in Cincinnati.

And thanks to St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Terrace Park and Carlton Monroe, director of music at St. Thomas, you can hear his music in context on a regular basis.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Terrace Park, Ohio
“Bach Vespers at St. Thomas,” now in its second year at the 134-year-old church, integrates sacred cantatas by Bach with the Anglican service of Evening Prayer. It is a fit that works, since Bach wrote most of his 200-plus cantatas for liturgical use. (Evening Prayer, or Evensong, is the equivalent of Vespers in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions.)

Bach’s Cantata “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (“Now Come, Savior of the Heathens”) was heard as part of Evening Prayer Sunday at St. Thomas in a fine performance by the Cincinnati Bach Ensemble, led by Monroe. The Cantata, BWV 62 in the catalog of Bach’s works, was first performed on December 3, 1724 at, coincidentally enough, St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor from 1723-1750. It is a chorale cantata, one of many Bach wrote using Lutheran hymns as a unifying device, here “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” by Martin Luther (heard in the first and last movements).

For the prelude, French hornist Elizabeth Freimuth performed a sonorous “Lied ohne Worte” (“Song Without Words”) by Oscar Franz, accompanied on piano by Cici Lee. This was followed by the gentle Christmas anthem “There is No Rose” by Stephen Caracciolo, performed by the newly formed 12-voice Bach Choir, led by Monroe.

Following the reading of First Lesson, tenor Anthony Beck performed “Zion hört die Wächter singen” (“Zion hears the watchmen sing”) from Cantata 140, one of Bach’s most popular cantatas (also known as “Sleepers Awake”). The sheen of Beck’s voice and the urgency of his delivery captured the spirit of Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) against the lovely counter melody, sounded in unison by violinists Gerry Itzkoff and Manami White and violist Kevin Boden of the Bach Ensemble.

A unique part of the service was Monroe’s “Reflection,” delivered from the pulpit before the performance of the Cantata, in which he described its music as a “study in hope and fear.” Exemplifying these extremes, the Bach Choir expressed anxiety and agitation in the opening chorus, while Beck followed with a joyous reading of the aria, “Bewundert, O Menschen” (“Marvel, O Mankind”), given added emphasis by the Bach Ensemble oboes.

Bass William McGraw conveyed the power of hope in his aria “Streite, sieger, starker Held!” (“Struggle, conquer, powerful hero!”), sung with vocal splendor and smooth, precise coloratura, accompanied by scurrying violins and basso continuo (double bass and organ). The concluding recitative and chorale gave the whole a luminous dimension.

Organist Kirsten Smith concluded the service with (appropriately) the Voluntary “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 661, by Bach.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church is part of the newly formed Episcopal Music Trail, comprising Episcopal churches in Greater Cincinnati.  A master list of of all events at member churches is posted at www.episcopalmusictrail.wordpress.com.

In the works is a "Summer's Bach" Festival, to take place June 7-9, with specifics, including repertoire, to be announced.

“Bach Vespers at St. Thomas” take place at 4 p.m. at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 100 Miami Rd in Terrace Park. Yet to come this season:

  • Dec. 23 -- Christmas lessons and carols. St, Thomas Choristers and Parish Choir.
  • Jan. 13 – Bach Vespers for Epiphany. Bach, “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen,” BSV 123. Gerry Itzkoff, violin. Sarah Jackson, alto. Anthony Beck, tenor. William McGraw, bass. Cincinnati Bach Ensemble.
  • Feb. 17 -- Bach Vespers. Thomas Tallis, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.” Krista Cornish Scott, Amanda Bower, sopranos. Sarah Jackson, alto. Jeffrey Stivers, tenor. Carlton Monroe, bass. Members of the Cincinnati Bach Choir.
  • March 24, -- Bach Vespers for Palm Sunday. Bach, “The Passion according to St. John.” St. Thomas Choristers and Parish Choir. Cincinnati Bach Ensemble.
  • April 14 – Bach Vespers for Easter. Bach, Ciaconna from Partita for Violin, No. 2. “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht,” BWV 52. Mananmi White, violin. YoonGeong Lee, soprano. Cincinnati Bach Ensemble.
  • May 19 -- Choral Evensong. Howard Helvey, "O Gracious Light." Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  St. Thomas Parish Choir and Choristers.
For information about Bach Vespers, visit bachvespers.wordpress.com.

For information about St. Thomas Episcopal Church, visit www.stthomasepiscopal.org.