BWW Feature: Ars Lyrica Houston Rocks Bach with Four Soloists This New Year's Eve
Forget everything you know about the Bach cantata. (It's hard. I know.) The Ars Lyrica Houston early music ensemble is to perform Johann Sebastian Bach's works sans chorus -- two cantatas plus one extra movement, with four soloists for its New Year's Eve concert BACHANALIA.
"Demolish" The Thought
Ars Lyrica Artistic Director and BACHANALIA conductor Matthew Dirst says he wanted lean voices to complement his lean ensemble, which consists of less than 10 musicians. So he decided on a vocal quartet, electing counter-tenor Ryland Angel, tenor Joseph Gaines, bass singer David Grogan and soprano Melissa Givens for the program.
Angel, Gaines, Grogan and Givens all have beautiful voices, of course, says Dirst. More importantly, he says, all four wield an instrument of striking clarity, an exacting vocal technique that cuts through the fat, gets to the meat of a song -- ("Bach's very detailed way of writing parts against each other gains a great amount of clarity," says Dirst. "You don't have to, in a sense, wade through such a weighty texture anymore.") -- and an expressive, unique interpretation that gives each work a flavor worth savoring.
This far out approach, this use of, as Dirst describes it, a "radically small ensemble" comes honest. It is the result of years of research and study on Dirst's part. Dirst is a Bach expert, author of the 2012 book Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn, which was published by Cambridge University Press; editor of Bach and the Organ, a University of Illinois Press release that appeared on shelves in 2016 as part of the university's Bach Perspectives series; and music scholar, serving as a Professor of Music for the University of Houston Moores School of Music. And though we'd all like to believe that hallucinogens are behind radical artistic choices, we have books not drugs to thank for BACHANALIA's Bach-ing sound. Lessons culled from academic texts are poised to not only challenge our idea of the classic classical composer's sound but also, to steal a phrase from Dirst, "demolish our notion of what a cantata requires."
A Robin by Any Other Name
Melissa Givens is a member of the vocal quartet to be conducted by Dirst (along with the Ars Lyrica Ensemble) in performances of two Bach church cantatas -- "Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende" (Praise God! The year now draws to a close), BWV 28, which Bach composed specifically for the Sunday after Christmas, and "Schwingt freudig euch empor" ("Soar joyfully upwards"), BWV 36c, Bach's cantata for the first Sunday in Advent -- and Bach's "Christmas Oratorio."
The soprano says Dirst is "so intimately involved with how we believe this work would have been performed in Bach's church." But he still uses common sense. "It's nice to have that comfort, knowing that you're working with somebody who knows their repertory so well that there's no way they're going to lead you in a way that doesn't make sense for the music," says Givens, who has performed in past Ars Lyrica New Year's Eve concerts and has even performed Bach with the company.
Dirst is a leader without being overbearing, knowledgeable without being condescending, says Givens, who has performed with the ensemble every year since 2000. And "Melissa brings an exceptional clarity and warmth to virtually everything she sings," says Dirst.
Given is clearly a robin by another name. For one, she doesn't need to sing in English to make her meaning clear. Dirst recalls a loyal Ars Lyrica patron and fan of Given's performances: "An audience member put it to me many years ago [saying] she enjoyed sitting in Zilka Hall, just simply closing her book when Melissa sang because every word was crystal clear. And she knew exactly what each piece conveyed just by the expressions on Melissa's face."
"That's the ideal," Dirst says. "You want a singer to be able to communicate so effectively that even if it's in a foreign language, your audience can simply close the book and not look at the translation because they know exactly what [the music] is about."
"'Don't sing at people. Sing to people.' Tell them stories;" an edict the soprano lives by (and teaches as a current member of Augusta University voice faculty).
The Reason for the Season
On a micro-level, BACHANALIA is a fundraiser for Ars Lyrica. The evening includes a pre-concert dinner and a post-concert gala and silent auction. But on a macro-level, it's part and parcel in the human holiday crusade. Winter holidays -- from Christmas to Kwanzaa -- are our attempt to defeat darkness in all it's forms -- long nights, low mood, unkindness toward your fellow man.
Givens gives compelling evidence that BACHANALIA is doing its bit: "There are so many things going on that could kind of put one in a Debbie Downer kind of mood or reduce one's sense of hope in civilization, but the fact that 400-year-old music is still around, that's there's a constancy to the beautiful things in the universe that have and will persevere. Part of that is what makes me happy to be a singer of early music -- a singer in general. There's still beauty to be celebrated and that's what's going to carry us through. And that's enough."
BACHANALIA is on Saturday, December 31st, 2016. Dinner begins at 7:30 p.m. The concert begins at 9 p.m. and the gala begins at 10:30 p.m. Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center For The Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-315-2525 or visit arslyricahouston.org/bachanalia.
All photos courtesy of Ars Lyrica Houston