Dallas — The Dallas Bach Society's Conductor and Artistic Director James Richman introduced the works performed at Zion Lutheran Church on their 2018 New Year's Eve concert as “bon-bons,” when he should have called them meilleur-meilleurs. Even if Johann Sebastian Bach indeed wrote anything we could slight (sorry, Maestro Richman) with the understatement "bon-bon," we'd probably find it in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, and it would probably turn out to be something he didn't even write.
Yes, the works on Monday evening's concert were some of his best known (with a couple of exceptions). We may, however, more readily recognize them as his greatest hits in their more common arrangements: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Air (for the G-string)," "Sheep May Safely Graze," and "Sleepers, Wake!" and others.
These works were performed with the high degree of historical-informedness which Dallas has come to expect of its Bach Society. This means "Jesu," "Sheep," and what many think of as the title cut from "Sleepers" had their vocal parts performed by vocalists (of all things!), and "Air" was not performed on the violin section's G-strings. Performed in their original instrumental/vocal configurations, they may have provided a mild shock to audience members not familiar with those settings: "Sheep May Safely Graze," for example, often heard performed with inflated forces, received impeccable treatment in its original instrumentation (a quintet, if I counted correctly—two flutes, vocalist, and basso continuo, which looks like four but it's five) with Dallas favorite Leslie Hochman on the solo soprano line.
Will this work ever outlive its welcome? Even in the worst lousy arrangement (and there have been many), it's unfailingly charming—but that's J. S. Bach for you: it's exceedingly difficult to ruin anything as great as this. More importantly, it would be exceedingly difficult to improve on this performance: Ms. Ricketts and Ms. Shore provided the reassuringly pastoral ritornello—one of the composer's best-known licks—and Ms. Hochman sang what ought to be called the main melody (had the piece originated a sacred cantata, it would have been the chorale tune). These two elements—flute motive and vocal line—existed in perfect tension, with exquisitely sensitive give-and-take between them.
Two of Bach’s most famous double concertos—BWV 1043 (G minor, for two violins) and BWV 1060 (D minor, for oboe and violin)—provided plenty of work for violin soloists Ha Dang, Clare Cason, and Thane Isaac, and oboe soloist MaryAnne Shore. I wonder if the transposition of the oboe/violin concerto to its original key of D minor made the work easier or more difficult, and if either, for whom—there were a couple of differences of opinion as to pitch in the D minor concerto. In any event, both concertos received expert treatment from soloists and orchestra alike, and Ms. Cason and Ms. Dang did a superb job of keeping the tightly tangled voices distinct in the G minor—something that most recordings find difficult to reproduce.
Practically everything on the program constituted a high point of some kind, but for many—for me, at least, and several of the chorus members, judging from the looks on their faces—the highest high point came with the final work, the Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. In the opening contrapuntal tour-de-force, the orchestra and chorus laid out a complicated fabric over which the soprano section soared with the chorale tune. And David Grogan, the bass soloist, was an inspiration to basses in the audience, and very likely others, both in his solo recitative and his duet with Ms. Hochman; in both, he achieved an astonishing intensity even when his volume was low, always producing the impression of great strength even in some tender moments in the duet.
I wonder if everyone was on the edge of their seats awaiting the tenor feature, the part of this cantata that we’ve all heard at one time or another (if comparatively rarely in its cantata context). Maestro Richman established the tempo at a refreshingly brisk pace, and the entrance of the tenor section—Mr. Cameron, Mr. Longnecker, and Mr. Tiggelaar—provided the pleasant shock that the voices always provide for anyone familiar primarily with Bach’s ultra-popular keyboard arrangement, the chorale prelude BWV 645. And I wonder further: as strong as the tenor section sounded on Monday evening, does their strength lie in a union of differences, or might a unified approach to tone production improve the sound? Rarely did they agree as to whether jaws should be dropped to produce a tall opening or be spread out like a wide grin. I truly don't know what the effect would be; I'm just wondering. They sounded great. Could they sound greater?
I have long avoided New Year's Eve concerts, whether live, televised or recorded for posterity. If I continue to avoid most New Year's Eve concerts, though, I will never flinch at the idea of attending the Dallas Bach Society's take on the tradition. Of course, Bach has so many "greatest hits," he could fill a decade's worth of these concerts without any duplication. So, even if next year's should feature the same pieces, I'll come see it again. And I’ll bring more of my friends.