Richness and Warmth The Netherlands Bach Society at Florida's Tropical Baroque Festival

By Lawrence Budmen

The musical universe of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was shaped by the rich Germanic tradition of church music -- original scores (ie Cantatas, masses, passions, etc) for weekly services. It was into this world of baroque polyphony that J S Bach was born. The young Bach sang and played the scores of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and Johann Kuhnau (1660-1762) -- music that had a profound influence on his creative spirit. The stellar Dutch ensemble The Netherlands Bach Society explored these musical influences in an inspired concert at the Tropical Baroque Music Festival V (presented by the Miami Bach Society) on 9 March 2004 at Coral Gables Congregational Church in Coral Gables, Florida, USA.

This marvelous group of eight choir members (who double as vocal soloists) and a ten member instrumental ensemble performs the music of Bach and his contemporaries with fervor, musical insight, and vocal and instrumental clarity that would be hard to equal. The angelic purity and melting tone of the ensemble's choral singing were balm to jaded ears. The group's conductor Jos van Veldhoven understands the drama and vigor of baroque music. Under his dedicated direction, this marvelous ensemble presented vibrant, living performances of varied and fascinating seventeenth and early eighteenth century repertoire.

J S Bach's cantata Komm, du susse Todesstunde ('O come, thou sweet hour of death') BWV161 is too often performed in a pedantic, heavy handed manner. The lightness and felicitous shaping of Veldhoven's interpretation were wonderful. The countertenor soloist was particularly distinguished for his dead center intonation and sense of musical drama. Every word (of the text) and note value were given their perfect weight and flow. This choral group clearly understood the verbal and musical meaning of the text. The beautiful singing of the sopranos (in this score and throughout the concert) was a particular joy. Bach wrote this cantata for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity -- The Feast of the Purification of Mary. Veldhoven and his tremendously gifted singers and musicians found the reverence and celebratory aspects of this work. When performed with such brilliance and joy, Bach's music truly comes alive!

No less interesting was the music of Bach's contemporaries. Johann Kuhnau's cantata Gott sei mir gnadig ('May God show mercy to me') is a work of high drama and bold contrasts. It would be hard to imagine a more passionate performance than the Dutch artists gave of this imaginative score. Unlike other 'original' or 'period' instruments groups, The Netherlands Bach players bring tonal richness and warmth to every score they perform. The beauty of the instrumental playing heightens the drama and impact of every work. (The marvelous playing of the viola da gamba instrumentalist was particularly distinguished.) The intimacy and warmly resonant acoustics of Coral Gables Congregational Church displayed this ensemble's unique qualities at their best. Buxtehude's Nimm von uns Herr du treuer Gott ('Jesus, life of life ...') BUXWV62 is an incredibly powerful and joyous score. This imaginative work stems from the simple repetition of a bass line. Bach's debt to Buxtehude was great. Buxtehude's polyphony and choral writing were deeply inspired. Veldhoven's highly charged performance brought the concert to an inspired conclusion.

The instrumental ensemble gave a lithe, transparent reading of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 BWV1049. The virtuosic, stylish playing of the group's concertmaster was a particular delight. Veldhoven's fleet tempos perfectly captured the dance rhythms that underpin Bach's instrumental music. The Andante was played with melting beauty, but without the slightest suggestion of heavy handedness. The gusto and sparkling buoyancy of the Allegro and Presto were exhilarating. The brilliant articulation and gorgeous tone of recorder virtuoso Marion Verbruggen were marvelous to behold. This lively performance presented Bach's inspired music with freshness and vibrant life. The artists received a well deserved standing ovation. Here was Bach with new life, vibrant instrumental colors and bold drama -- Bach for the 21st century!

The previous evening (8 March 2004) the New York based instrumental group Rebel presented a lively, interesting concert at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables. The vigor and dynamism of this ensemble were contagious. Under violinist-directors Jorg-Michael Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer, this baroque band brought instrumental virtuosity and lightness of spirit to a varied program. Highlights were three delightful pieces from Il Primo Libro (1607) by Salomon Rossi (1570-c1630) -- played with grace and Úlan. (This music figures in the Salomon Rossi Suite by contemporary American composer Lukas Foss.) The charming ballet music of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1620-1680), official composer to the Hapsburg Court of Vienna, was filled with strikingly original instrumental touches and inspired melodic invention. The Passacaglia in G by Georg Muffat (1653-1704) was melodically beguiling -- the perfect replacement for the overworked Pachelbel Canon. Two Sonatas by the master Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767) were filled with musical inspiration and performed with dynamic lightness. The organ and harpsichord playing of Dongsok Shin was boldly imaginative -- the strong continuo center of a wonderful ensemble.

The Netherlands Bach Society and Rebel are among the best of the world's baroque ensembles. With performances of such freshness and vigor, the Tropical Baroque Festival was a feast of great baroque music making! A landmark for the Miami Bach Society!

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