Boulder Bach Festival returns to its central mission with four choral works

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Its next concert will return to the original focus of the festival by presenting choral works by J.S. Bach with soloists and orchestra.
Caitlin Rockett | Boulder Weekly

It will be back to basics for the Boulder Bach Festival.

Its next concert will return to the original focus of the festival by presenting choral works by J.S. Bach with soloists and orchestra. After several concerts featuring music by composers before and after Bach, and introducing various performance styles, the program will comprise four of Bach’s church cantatas: No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden; No. 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft; No. 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; and No. 63, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag.

“All of these works have great arias, beautiful duets, riveting choruses and gorgeous orchestral writing,” Zachary Carrettin, the festival’s artistic director, says. “I love these four works, and I thought they would be fabulous on one program.”

Carrettin will conduct the Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and Orchestra, with soloists Josefien Stoppelenburg, soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Derek Chester, tenor; and Ashraf Sewailam, bass. “These are four of the greatest soloists we’ve programmed,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a better quartet of individuals to collaborate with our chorus and orchestra.”

Although she lives in the Netherlands, Stoppelenburg has performed several times at the BBF and has “already become a Bach Festival favorite,” Carrettin notes. “Nims has an extraordinary career as a mezzo and is on the faculty at CU Boulder. Chester [appeared] as soloist with the Boulder Philharmonic and the Colorado Symphony last year, and he’s on the faculty of UNC in Greeley. And Sewailam, who has sung as soloist with the Boulder Philharmonic many times, is an extraordinary musical presence.”

Stoppelenburg likes to come all the way to Boulder to perform at the BBF for several reasons. “It’s a very special festival, and for me it’s a great treat to go there and sniff some good mountain air,” she says. Beyond that, she enjoys singing the festival’s Baroque repertoire, because it “fits my soul and my voice the best. And you can tell that the audience in Boulder is very culturally aware.”

Carrettin chose cantatas for this program because of the central place they have in J.S. Bach’s life. Providing cantatas for Sunday services in Leipzig was for many years one of his main duties. “With over 200 cantatas, this is what Bach did,” Carrettin explains. “If you want to find the majority of Bach’s masterpieces, you look to the cantatas. It’s the genre that’s got everything.

“It’s got the drama that one may find in an opera. It has the sacred quality one might find in the liturgical settings. Sometimes it has the instrumental writing you find in a concerto. The cantatas have everything!”

The two halves of the program, before and after intermission, represent different styles and different periods in Bach’s creative life. The first two cantatas, nos. 4 and 61, are scored for voices and strings only, and date from the early years of Bach’s career. They are both “chorale cantatas,” meaning that they are based on a Lutheran chorale tune that appears throughout the cantata, often in longer notes surrounded by musical decoration.

“There’s almost a medieval quality, and these archaic moments have a profound quality for the listener,” Carrettin says. “That’s why I’ve chosen to do one per part in the string section, with a chamber choir of 20 singers.”

There will be a significant contrast in sound with the two later cantatas, nos. 50 and 63. “We contrast (the earlier works) with two works in the second half that have four trumpets, three oboes, timpani and full orchestra,” Carrettin says. “We bring out the full chorus of 44 and the larger string section for these two works. It’s a different style of writing, and very jubilant.”

The difference in sound reflects the different ways these works would have been perceived in Bach’s lifetime. The earlier cantatas would have seemed old fashioned in the 18th century. “These cantatas look backwards stylistically, and there’s something very profound in doing that,” Carrettin says.

In contrast, “when he’s writing for trumpets and oboes and timpani, it’s a very contemporary voice for him. So the first half is Bach looking backward, and the second half is Bach in the moment.”

These kinds of stylistic and historical distinctions are fascinating and can add a great deal to the enjoyment of the concert. But Carrettin hopes the audience will listen primarily to enjoy the music, as they would for the chamber concerts or any other programs at the BBF. “Listening to a cantatas program is a lot like listening to a concertos program,” he says. “It’s uplifting and intriguing, and there’s diversity in the writing.

“But it’s important to say that some of the greatest moments in Bach’s aria writing and choral writing are in this concert.”

On the Bill: “Eternal Spirit.” Boulder Bach Festival, Zachary Carrettin, artistic director. Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus with guest artists. Four Bach Cantatas. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15. Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder. Tickets: 720-507-5052 or www.boulderbachfestival.org/tickets/