We're living through a time in which "enduring" seems a common state of mind. Here's a tip of the cap to one who's managed to endure for a remarkably long time: Johann Sebastian Bach.
There are many reasons why: the ideal confluence of simplicity and complexity, sadness and joy, the technical challenges awaiting musicians. Those were among the reasons that a group of University of Minnesota students formed the Bach Society of Minnesota in 1932. In another great example of "enduring," it's now among the Twin Cities area's oldest classical music presenters.
And, despite the limits imposed by COVID-19, these are fine days for the Bach Society. Since 2016, it's been led by Germany's Matthias Maute, one of the early music world's top soloists on flute and recorder, as well as an inventive programmer and colorful host. And former artistic director Paul Boehnke is still among its go-to musicians.
The Bach Society presented its final concert of its virtual 2020-21 season on Sunday, and it was a fine way to enjoy a snow-laden afternoon. The choice of repertoire from Bach's voluminous catalog (plus a George Frideric Handel palate cleanser) beautifully balanced the tender and touching with the off-to-the-races exhilaration of his peppiest prestos. Sporting a violin sonata and cantata and a cluster of short pieces between them, it proved eminently enjoyable.
The concert was presented from the Baroque Room, an intimate venue in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. No more than seven musicians performed any piece, only a flutist and vocalist unmasked. But Bach on a small scale still holds many rewards.
The most unqualified success may have been the opener, Bach's Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1021. The soloist was the Bach Society orchestra's concertmaster, Margaret Humphrey, but this felt far less a star solo turn than a high-energy collaboration with cellist Rebecca Merblum and harpsichordist Boehnke, the brisk finale quite the adrenaline rush.
The central part of the concert was something like musical tapas, with the pieces varied in source and never exceeding more than a few minutes. This is where soprano Anna Christofaro first emerged, lending soulful gentleness to a pair of arias from Bach cantatas with Merblum and Boehnke laying a continuo foundation beneath her.
But the Largo movement from an early Handel Trio Sonata was the most engaging of the short works, thanks in part to Paul Jacobson's transfixing flute. And how interesting to hear the tail end of Bach's familiar Suite No. 2 for Flute and Strings played by a sextet.
"Ich habe genug" is one of Bach's most popular cantatas — the multi-movement works with vocals that he composed for church services. (Considering that he wrote a new one most Sundays during many decades as a church musician, we can only imagine how many are forever lost.) It contains three emotion-packed arias, with two spare and straightforward recitatives binding them together. The subject is approaching death with a sense of acceptance and gratitude for all life has offered, and Christofaro was an expressive soloist throughout, her attacks warm and velvety, her moments of forcefulness bracingly clear.
Alas, the sextet of instrumentalists occasionally overpowered her in volume, but their interplay was a joy to watch. It reminded me how much I've missed this kind of close-range conversation among musicians, something I long to experience at close quarters once again.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Bach Society of Minnesota
"Bach, Banter and Badinerie."
Available on demand free after March 5, at bachsocietymn.org.