‘Thrill Of A Lifetime’: Critic As Chorister Sings Bach At Leipzig Festival

Ralph Nelson led the congregation in a chorale during a performance of a Bach cantata featuring the Bach Cantata Choir of Portland and Camerata Lipsiensis at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church. (Photos by Bach-Archiv Leipzig / Gert Mothes)

Editor’s note: Music critic James Bash, who lives in Portland, is a frequent contributor to Classical Voice North America and treasurer of the Music Critics Association of North America.

LEIPZIG — Three hundred years have passed since J.S. Bach wrote 66 cantatas while working as the head honcho for the four major churches in Leipzig. The 2024 Bachfest (June 7-16) chose to celebrate that feat by performing all of those cantatas under the theme “CHORal TOTAL.” That was the cornerstone for this year’s festival, which offered 157 events, including organ recitals, small ensemble concerts, lectures, and even an opera, The Apokalypse, which was advertised as “the opera Bach never wrote.”

The Bach Cantata Choir of Portland, Ore., was invited to participate in the 2020 Bachfest, but the pandemic put the kibosh on that event. So the choir’s debut was delayed to this year, when the BCC was part of the 30 choirs from around the world at the Bachfest, including Australia, Malaysia, England, Japan, France, and Poland. Five choirs came from the United States: Emmanuel Music Boston, Bach Cantata Vespers Choir (Chicago), The Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), Bach Collegium San Diego, and BCC.

I grew up singing in church choirs and continued that addiction through college and afterwards with auditioned choirs, working with orchestras under conductors such as James DePreist, Carlos Kalmar, Helmuth Rilling, Bernard Labadie, Keith Lockhart, and Skitch Henderson. For the past dozen or so years, I’ve been warbling in the tenor section of the Bach Cantata Choir, which was founded in 2005 by artistic director Ralph Nelson with the highfalutin goal of singing all of Bach’s cantatas. That’s a tall order because Bach wrote around 300, with 215 that are known to have survived. The BCC has done 79 so far.

The festival in Leipzig assigned specific cantatas to each choir. The BCC was tasked with Cantata 38 “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (“In Deepest Need I Cry to You”), Cantata 80 “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), and Cantata 115 “Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit” (“O My Spirit, Be Prepared”). We spent the past season learning each piece and performing them in our concert series with professional soloists from the Pacific Northwest: soprano Vakare Petroliūnaité, alto Hannah Penn, tenor Leslie Green, and bass Jacob Herbert.

Upon arrival at the festival, our initial challenge was to get used to the accompanying orchestra, Camerata Lipsiensis, a top-notch period-instrument ensemble based in Leipzig. In an afternoon rehearsal at the Paul Gerhardt Church, we were able to run through some critical points of our program. That same evening, we reassembled at the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) to run through the entire enchilada. The building dates back to 1165 and is the largest church in Leipzig (207 feet long and 141 feet wide). It was also one of the main churches where Bach performed his music.

Ralph Nelson founded the Bach Cantata Choir of Portland in 2005.

At the Nikolaikirche, the choir was seated on special risers in front of the altar, while the orchestra was placed around the altar rail on the main floor of the nave. Guided by Nelson, we came to understand that the acoustics of the space would easily carry our voices into the nave, so we didn’t need to push our sound.

The advantage of the Nikolaikirche over the other church venues in Leipzig was that we faced the listeners like we would at a regular concert hall. In other churches, such as the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), the choir and orchestra are in the balcony behind the audience. Ergo, concertgoers on the main floor have to turn their heads like owls to see the conductor and the soloists who come to the front of the balcony. There is basically no view of the orchestra and chorus even after they stand at the end of their performance to acknowledge the applause.

The Nikolaikirche, like many older churches, is bathroom-challenged. There was only one bathroom with a single toilet near the rehearsal space where we reassembled to warm up before our performance on June 11, but it was located four floors below. One chorister left his music in the rehearsal room, traveled four floors to the bathroom, and then returned to the rehearsal room after we had left only to find that the door was locked. He frantically found the right person to unlock the door and then had to get to the room where we were reassembling ourselves for our grand entry. He accomplished that with a just few minutes to spare. Crisis averted.

At the beginning of each cantata concert, the church organist played a prelude followed by the first two verses of the first cantata chorale in its hymnal form for the audience to sing. However, the huge organ at the Nikolaikirche is tuned at A440. The Baroque pitch we needed was A415. So after the sing-along, we had to get our pitch from the orchestra before launching into Cantata 38 “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir.” That went smoothly, but it was a curious thing that the main organ did not have a transposer, which would have put all tones at the same pitch.

Maybe it was nerves or just the right time for the BCC to sing at the Nikolaikirche. Whatever the case, we performed Cantata 38 extremely well. Because of the resonant acoustics, which can result in rolling echos, Nelson judiciously chose slightly slower tempos. The singers compensated by shortening notes just a hair and over-expressing consonants. Otherwise, everything would have turned to mush.

Bach Cantata Choir of Portland organist John Vergin played at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig.

Then we sailed into the more difficult Cantata 80 “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” with great confidence. The lower Baroque pitch allowed tenors to conquer more easily the minefield of high Gs and As that litter the first chorus, which is way more extensive (22 pages) and contrapuntally complex than any other chorus Bach wrote for the other cantatas.

Since the BCC was asked to perform our assigned cantatas in numerical order, we finished our program with Cantata 115 “Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit.” Its final chorus might be seen as a downer because it mentions a future when “God will judge us and destroy the world.” Yet the audience, which included Bachfest artistic director Michael Maul and Bachmeister Ton Koopman, was so moved by our performance that it gave us a thundering ovation, and Nelson, after returning to center stage, alertly signaled an encore, Alice Parker’s arrangement of “Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal,” which received another enthusiastic response.

Our soloists sang superbly. Petroliūnaité and Penn melted listeners with their clear and warm voices. Green and Herbert delivered their arias and recitatives impeccably and with emotional content. The quartet helped to put us over the goal line, making our experience a verifiable hit.

The next day (June 12), our choir sang a concert at the Leipzig Central Train Station. It’s a huge station with big east and west lobbies. A stage with an electric piano was set up in the east one for choir performances. Once the piped-in pop music was stopped, we rehearsed in the space so that we could adjust to its very reverberant acoustic and sing our American program, which didn’t require an orchestra.

While at the festival, I was able to hear several concerts. The Monteverdi Choir under conductor Jonathan Sells (John Elliot Gardiner was still banished due to his physical assault on a singer) established the gold standard with their concert of motets by Johann Bach, Johann Michael Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, and J. S. Bach. The singers excelled with deliciously tapered phrases, immaculate diction, and precise cutoffs. The sopranos soared over the complexity of whatever else was going on. Superb violinist Isabelle Faust played several partitas with sensitively and elan. But the concert, which included a one-hour intermission and an encore by the choir, clocked in at four hours and 15 minutes. That was perhaps too much of a good thing, although apparently not for the throng of fans who filled the center aisle with their cell phone cameras.

I also heard the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under Koopman perform four cantatas at the Nikolaikirche. The most familiar was Cantata 97 “In Allen Meinen Taten” (“In All That I Do”), which is in some Protestant hymnals. The tonal balance among the singers for each cantata was exceptional, but the soprano line, which often has the cantus firmus, should have been stronger.

One of the events during the Bach Choir of Portland’s residency in Leipzig was a concert at the city’s central train station.

The concert at the Paulinum, a church on the campus of the University of Leipzig, featured Ruben Valenzuela leading the Bach Collegium San Diego and the Pauliner Baroque Ensemble in three cantatas. The choir, consisting of six professional singers, excelled with a clear and resonant sound but needed one more soprano because the lone soprano’s sound got buried by the two altos, one tenor, and two basses. The performers were positioned in the balcony, and the vast majority of us — except for those who sat near the altar — had to completely turn around to find out who sang the solos.

The Bach Cantata Vespers Chorus of Grace Lutheran Church, Chicago, presented three cantatas at St. Thomas Church, which contains Bach’s grave (near the altar). Accompanied by the Leipzig Baroque Orchestra under Michael D. Costello and featuring four professional soloists from around Europe, the choir sang with gusto but needed more sopranos.

I don’t think that Bach had anything against sopranos, but I was surprised to find that their sound was muffled in some of the performances. It’s fun to hear the inner workings of Bach’s music, which is often carried by the lower voices, but without the over-arching soprano line, Bach’s choruses lose some of their magic. Yet the super experience of singing Bach in the city where he created so many of his great works was the thrill of a lifetime, and now my colleagues and I hope to be invited back for another round in the near future.