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Review: RING IN THE NEW - ADELAIDE CANTATA BAND at Pilgrim Uniting Church

Review: RING IN THE NEW - ADELAIDE CANTATA BAND at Pilgrim Uniting Church

Celebrating the New Year with Bach.

Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Saturday 31st December 2022.

When I saw that the Cantata Band would be seeing the old year out and ringing the New Year in with the music of Bach, my plans for the transitional time became easily managed. They've been active in Adelaide for only a few years, and seem ready to take over the mantle of Baroque performance from Adelaide Baroque. AB has been denied state government funding in the recent grant round.

Firstly, let me apologize for the delay in submitting this review of Ring in the New. I've spent the last few days, the first days of the New Year, replaying the cantatas and studying the scores. The demands Bach makes on all of his musicians are incredible and the way that the Cantata Band and its singers rose to the challenges was heart-warming. This was the perfect end to a difficult year and a harbinger of the possible things to come.

Ben Dollman, a highly regarded musician, leads the ensemble and, for this concert, Kim Worley conducted. He's an experienced 'cellist and, in the last few years, has been showing a very skilful tenor voice. He's ideally suited to understanding and communicating the music of this period.

The band follows what is most widely believed to be Bach's own performing practice, with four solo voices who perform all the arias, chorales, and choruses. This time they, also following Bach's practice, added a small number of additional voices per part; three sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and three basses. The orchestra is built on the continuo foundation provided by Tom Marlin on 'cello, Robert Nairn on violone, Glenys March on harpsichord, and Andrew Georg on chamber organ. Ben Dollman led the strings, with Paris Netting and Tahlia Williams joining the first violins, Alison Rayner and Tom Helps playing second, and Anna Webb and Natalie Magraeth violas. Celia Craig and Brendan O'Donnell were the oboists.

The performance began, not with Bach, but with his contemporary Corelli, in a gently motivated performance of his Concerto Per il Notte di Natale, the Christmas Concerto, led by Ben Dollman.

The calibre of the musicians was undoubted, but there was one innovation in the concert management which caught my attention.

The ten singers stood in a curved line behind the instrumentalists and sang out the opening chorus of Bach's Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, cantata 62. It was first performed at the start of Advent on the 3rd of December 1724. During the instrumental ending to the movement, the choir separated and moved very quietly from their place and stood at the sides of the church. The soloists could then take their place at the front of the band allowing a smooth move from movement to movement. Callum McGing, a young tenor on the rise sang the first aria, Bewundert, O Menschen, Dies Grosse Geheimnis with youthful timbre, fine diction, and inexhaustible breath control. Corin Bone, baritone, followed with Streiter, Siege, Starker Held. The text is a summons to the Saviour couched in martial terms. Again, careful diction and control of the vocal line marked his singing. I went back to the scores later and marvelled at the virtuosic demands the composer makes on his musicians, with long breaks of florid ornamentation. Then Bach came up with a variation of the usual pattern of a cantata, with a recitative for two female voices, brief and eloquent, performed by Margaret Pearce and Courtney Turner, before the choir returned for the brief concluding chorale.

The second half began with a rarity, a new work for Baroque strings by Calvin Bowman, Zengo Sai Dan, a Zen-inspired piece using simple repetition, and allowing Ben Dollman to play a gentle rising phrase against the other strings. It would work almost as well on modern instruments but was a testament to that time of calm and transition that marked the day.

There are six cantatas that make up the Christmas Oratorio and the band chose the Cantata Fallt mit Danken, Fallt mit Loben, (prostrate yourself with thanks and praise). I'm totally inclined to do that after this performance. It's for New Year's Day and also marks the naming and circumcision of the infant Jesus. The opening chorus is a thing of beauty, with the orchestra joined by two natural horns, played by Sarah Barrett and Emma Gregan. The tenor, the redoubtable Richard Black, has a brief recitative before Bach does one of the things he does so beautifully which is to pitch a soprano chorale against a bass solo. Alex Roose is superb in this repertoire, and instead of the massed sopranos who might join the soloist here, it was Margaret Pearce, whose clear bright sound is a joy in itself. They paired up again after one of the most endearing and witty parts of the entire work. Floesst Mein Heiland is an echo aria. Brooke Window sings "nein" and the off-stage soprano, Margaret Pearce, echoes the word, as does the oboe played by Celia Craig. The same thing happens when she sings "ja". Bach then pulls a fast one as we hear the echo before the soloist. It must have mightily amused Bach's choir. Richard Black took the last aria, Ich Will Nur Dir zu Ehren leben. His long experience of this repertoire showed in his handling of the long melismas in this remarkably jaunty aria. Amelia Holds, Emma Woehle, and Christian Evans were the other three singers in the highly effective vocal ensemble.

When the burgers of Leipzig and their families left the church that day what would they remember? The sermon would have been long. WS Gilbert lists attending a German sermon amid the punishments meted out by the Mikado. The music would have been tied thematically to the service. They would never hear it again. We can.

With these forces in Adelaide, a full run of the Christmas Oratorio over two concerts is possible. Will our burghers come up with the money?

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