Conductor Brian Bartoldus brought his chamber chorus Third Practice to Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday for a compelling program of old and new music. “Third Practice” refers to the group’s contemporary repertoire, although it also performs earlier works. At Dumbarton Oaks, the ensemble added some early and late Baroque fare, the so-called Second Practice, a historical category created by the Italian Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi to distinguish his music from Renaissance and medieval works. That said, the entire evening proved a winner, the singers sustaining vocal energy, unfailing technique and expressive nuances throughout three vastly different works.
Bartoldus programmed two Second Practice works: Heinrich Schuetz’s searing “Musikalishe Exequien,” SWV 279-281, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s funeral motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” BWV 229. Bach’s motet calls for two four-part choruses, supported by continuo instruments. Under Bartoldus’s subtle direction, the Bach sounded totally alive and dramatic, with precise timing, careful balance and clear-cut phrasing. As the choruses alternated in a series of pungent multidimensional sonorities, individual voices engaged in fleeting contrapuntal crossfire. The result was a tapestry of finely rendered textures, although a subdued account of the final hymn would have more effectively expressed its message of ultimate submission to death.
Schuetz designed his requiem for one person, while also relating the horrific suffering the Germans were undergoing during the Thirty Years War. The chorus conveyed this double dose of grief with elegant immediacy, emotional conviction and cohesion. Sharply etched phrasing (one thinks of an Albrecht Duerer woodcut of Christ on the Cross), intelligible German diction and keen tempo inflections precisely reflected the music’s piercing emotions.
American composer David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” (a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner), a spellbinding, updated, post-minimalist parallel to Christ’s Passion, capped the evening. The piece stole the show, its agonizing drama of a dying child beautifully wrought by Bartoldus’s forces, who even engaged in multitasking — playing percussion instruments while singing. The group’s focused energy and exactitude underlined the close dissonances and hypnotic minimalist repetitions of the music, casting an intoxicating spell.
Porter is a freelance writer.