Review: Washington Bach Consort's 'Origins' at National Presbyterian Church

By Cecelia Porter
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Washington Bach Consort chose an intriguing theme -- with a twist -- for Sunday's program, titled "Origins," at National Presbyterian Church. The unique performance featured not only the original Kyrie and Gloria sections of Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, but also music by three of his now-forgotten contemporaries. Their works were part of the musical goings-on at the lavish royal court of Dresden, one of Germany's cultural crossroads.

The Consort's idea was to capture the court's spectacular but competitive musical scene in Bach's day, focusing on the two Mass sections, which he hoped would gain him a choice court post. (The remaining movements were composed later.) The concert included a stirring Magnificat in A by Johann David Heinichen, the rather bland Ouverture No. 6 in B-flat by Francesco Maria Veracini and an exciting Te Deum in D, ZWV 145, by Jan Dismas Zelenka. With Consort Director J. Reilly Lewis conducting, the musicians gave splendid accounts of this music.

For the Bach, Lewis offered the capacity audience a daring experiment: Based on performance practice in the composer's day, Lewis assigned fewer than a dozen singers to cover five vocal parts rather than the usually heard gigantic chorus. The voices were supported by an expert orchestra on baroque-period instruments. The novel undertaking worked to some degree.

The singers managed the solos and choral sections with resonant clarity, exuberance and fluidity in lengthy, embellished melodic passages. The orchestra and its luminous soloists played expressively and with artful technique. But the balance between the singers and instrumentalists wasn't uniformly effective, the orchestra (possibly too large) often winning out over the sometimes inaudible chorus and soloists. Perhaps the spacious sanctuary's acoustics also worked against the performers. But Lewis should try his worthy experiment again -- in a smaller space.

Porter is a freelance writer.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company