Singing Bach is Hard

Photo by Paul Crisanti.

Photo by Paul Crisanti.

Confession: I am a singer who is good at choosing repertoire that shows off my specific skills and personality; and I am terrified of singing Bach. In my experience, the phrase lengths rarely correspond with standard human breath capacity (except for Arleen Auger); coloratura passages break the pattern as soon as you think you’ve found a pattern; and the same rules one might consider in phrasing early Baroque, Rococo, or Classical era melodic lines apply less often. So, when I am learning a new work by Bach, I never feel like I know it until I’ve performed it a few times — and that makes me feel dumb.

I used to be skeptical of those who say how much they love Bach’s vocal music or how Bach fits their voices so well. Now, I just accept that there are musicians out there who are smarter than me and/or have had more experience with Bach’s music (i.e. they are mathematicians or Lutheran). Through years of being confronted by Bach gigs, attending masterclasses in which Bach was being coached, listening to recordings, and in a recent conversation I had with Iestyn Davies, I have gleaned that the most successful interpreters of Bach, like Dame Janet Baker, are able to surrender their egos and be a part of an instrumental texture, like a chamber musician. They don’t try to be musical, but rather, they sing it as written letting Bach’s writing itself be expressive. This is counter-intuitive to how someone like me, who relishes a bel canto line or a gestural Monteverdi coloratura jag, would make a phrase sound musical. You may not want to shade a specific word because Bach may be using another instrument in the ensemble to create a meta-color. Singing Bach is closer to singing polyphony than singing Handel.

And then I hear a 14-year-old singing Bach so naturally and I feel dumb all over again.

William Lewis, treble; Bella Voce Sinfonia, Andrew Lewis, conductor

This weekend presents an opportunity to hear three prominent leaders in the performance of Bach in Chicago. Jason J. Moy, Artistic Director of Ars Musica Chicago and continuo keyboardist of choice for Bach Week Festival, leads a “Coffeehouse Concert” featuring vocal music from the Anna Magdalena Notebook at St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church. This free performance with soprano Hannah De Priest is already at capacity, but a stand-by line will be available. Jason’s ensemble adds bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton, a premier singer of Bach and a very handsome man, in a concert to benefit Bach Week Festival.

Bach Week Festival itself doesn’t begin until late April, but it’s Music Director, Richard Webster, is already hard at work preparing the chorus for the festival finale concert on May 3. You can preview two motets from that program for free as part of Bach Week Festival’s annual participation in Bach in the Subways at the Rookery, lunchtime on Friday.

The third musician who seems to have dedicated his life to sharing his love of Bach with the community is Michael D. Costello. Cantor of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest and director of Bach Cantata Vespers, Costello has already mounted full-scale performances of both Passions and the Mass in B minor, and is on track to performing all the cantatas with some of Chicago’s best musicians. This Sunday, Bach Cantata Vespers presents Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131. Vocal Arts Chicago does not want to get in the habit of promoting liturgical services, but when they include a cantata performed by singers such as Nathalie Colas (Third Coast Baroque), Sarah Ponder (Chicago a cappella), Ryan Townsend Strand (Constellation Men’s Ensemble), and Dr. Douglas Anderson (Loyola Medicine) with Haymarket Orchestra players on period instruments, I feel obliged to inform you, dear reader.

In Opera-land, Lyric Opera is throwing Renée Fleming a party and I expect it to feel as glamorous as the Oscars and as camp as Titus Andromedon. Also of note, Transgressive Theatre-Opera is putting together Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. TT-O’s Artistic Director Aaron Hunt has already publicly promised to alter the score, add two characters, and use spoken English dialogue in lieu of secco recitative. I am not on board with all of Hunt’s choices, but I am happy to see someone regularly championing soprano Mary Lutz-Govertsen who gets to sing Countess Adèle’s showpiece aria and who is one of Chicago’s most interesting performers.

Finally, Jonathan Zeng — the beloved and versatile tenor of Chicago’s storefront opera scene — is performing his original cabaret Songs That Speak. An alternative to Renée those who lean more Music Theater and/or for those who are allergic to too many gowns.