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Bach Consort celebrates new year, new leader

Dana Marsh conducting the Washington Bach Consort.
Dana Marsh conducting the Washington Bach Consort. (David Betts/ Metropolitan Photography)
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With works that celebrated new beginnings and the glory of music, the Washington Bach Consort opened its 41st season, and a new era, on Sunday afternoon.

It was both exciting and poignant to see the name of a new artistic director proudly emblazoned across the top of the program. With this concert, Dana Marsh, 53, took over an organization that was so profoundly associated with its founder, J. Reilly Lewis, that some questioned whether it would continue after Lewis’s unexpected death in 2016.

Marsh, like Lewis, knows how to connect with a choir and is clearly steeped in music. There, the similarities end. It is hardly notable to say that Marsh is less outwardly effusive than Lewis, since one could say the same of almost every human being on the planet. But Marsh brings his own brand of warmth, combined with an efficiency of gesture and statement that helped create sound and vital musicmaking in an engaging concert.

Since Marsh’s appointment was announced this summer, at the end of a 40th-anniversary season that involved five conductors trying out for the artistic director’s job, the current season had to be planned before he had taken over. The Consort’s administration solicited suggestions from all five of the candidates, executive director Marc Eisenberg said last week, and compiled a season based on those, so that whoever was appointed would at least be working with something he or she had suggested.

New music, fresh start: a new head for Washington Bach Consort

This first program, certainly, was fitting for a new beginning. It opened with a Bach New Year’s cantata, BWV 190, whose text praises the fresh start of a new year, and which showed three male soloists — countertenor Roger O. Isaacs, tenor Kyle Tomlin, and baritone Steven Combs — to advantage. (The final words, “Put the hypocrite to shame/ here and everywhere!” had a certain contemporary resonance, as well.)

The meat of the program, though, was a juxtaposition of two large works by Bach and Handel that presented a range of instrumental and vocal colors in a sequence of movements: Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” and Bach’s Magnificat in D (BWV 243). “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day,” a secular work written in honor of music’s patron saint, matches texts and instruments and moods: a verse about “The Trumpet’s loud clangor” is followed by one on “the soft complaining Flute,” in which the dusky sound of the black-and-white baroque flute was a gentle contrast to the shining tones of the beautiful soprano soloist, Amy Nicole Broadbent.

The Magnificat is no less splendid, written as Bach prepared new works for his upcoming post in Leipzig, Germany, and showing off all five soloists with five combinations of instruments, interspersed with resounding and emphatic choruses. Bach benefited most from the fluid ease of Marsh’s approach: the chorus resilient and the soloists confident. Combs sounded particularly good in the New Year’s cantata, while Tomlin paled against the instruments in the course of the afternoon. The flashier Handel piece came across as slightly muted in comparison. But, overall, it was a rich afternoon, which began with Marsh presenting a bouquet in Lewis’s memory to Lewis’s widow, Beth, and ended with an ovation.

The Bach Consort opens its Noontime Cantata series on Oct. 1 and 2 and its chamber series on Nov. 2; see for further information.