Vocalist - Baritone
Acclaim
An eccentric contemporary of Bach shares his spotlight
BETHLEHEM, Pa. - When looking beyond the big masterpieces, the Bethlehem Bach Festival becomes an alternative experience - less consistent but more stimulating, with seldom-encountered Bach cantatas and oratorios of variable quality, plus composers other than Bach.

Other than Bach?

That change has come about quietly in recent years: Heinrich Schutz was heard earlier this season in Bach Choir of Bethlehem's Philadelphia concert; next year, composer Stephen Paulus will write something brand new for the festival. The interloper at Friday's opening of the 101st festival was Jan Dismas Zelenka, Bach's Dresden counterpart whose individuality seems hugely out of character with 18th-century formality. But his Miserere is a work of such genius that you're left fantasizing: Could there be such a thing as the Bethlehem Zelenka Festival?

Straying from the masterpieces does have its dangers. Amid the festival's traditionally dense schedule - 10 concerts over two weekends, through Saturday - tired singers can fall back on muscle memory in annual perennials like Bach's Mass in B minor. In more recently learned works, mishaps weren't necessarily evident on Friday, but Bach's Cantata BWV 118 "O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht" didn't seem fully digested, its distinctive sound world not fully projected.

One must take into account the festival's playing field: Both grand and intimate works are heard in the same venue, the 850-seat Packer Memorial Church, and with a choir about four times the size of what's typical in the early-music festivals of Europe. Though Philadelphia's Richard Stone is brought in to play a historically accurate theorbo, practicality dictates that the arcane oboe da caccia is replaced by the modern English horn. Amid all these factors, artistic director Greg Funfgeld finds ways to project the right musical points in the big masterpieces in this one-size-fits-most setting. In other repertoire, that didn't always happen.

The Zelenka performance was the most successful in Friday's two concerts. This composer (1679-1745) was virtually unknown until the late 1970s when a series of recordings revealed a first-rate though somewhat eccentric composer. The Miserere has treble and bass lines fairly typical of those times, while inner voices could have been borrowed from a completely different piece. Yet all elements magically meld together, despite the non-pluralistic character of the 18th century.

The C-minor opening and tense rhythms of the Miserere support the popular notion that Zelenka represents the occult side of the baroque era, the way Gesualdo is the tortured coda of the Renaissance. However, if this Bach festival is about anything, it's the ennobling power of music and a dignified if somewhat retro performance approach that comes with it. So the tenseness projected by other performances seemed determined under Funfgeld. A skeptic might say Zelenka was steamrolled. But you could also say this performance explains why his strangeness didn't keep him out of the mainstream in his own time.

Bach's Easter Oratorio, Ascension Oratorio and the Trauer-Ode BWV 198 received more generalized performances. Among soloists, hearing William Sharp's warm baritone was like greeting an old friend, though Kendra Colton's soprano was sturdy but chilly. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, who looked and sounded so tired last year, was transformed: Every phrase shimmered with vitality and comprehension. He's one reason to make the trip.

Not that many in the audience need one. In deference to a festival tradition, Funfgeld made sure that one of the Friday cantatas (Wer mich liebet, BWV 74) had a final chorale suitable for audience participation. Voices around me found their own range within the four staff lines printed in the program book (as opposed to just gravitating toward the treble line) - reflecting an exceptional degree of smarts and devotion.
David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer
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