Hall, Choral Arts perform Bach cantatas masterfully


In the last few years all that's been routine about the performances of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and its music director, Tom Hall, is how consistently good they are.

On Sunday evening in Kraushaar Auditorium, Hall and the Society performed the last three cantatas of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" -- they performed the first three last season -- in a style that was traditionally warm but enlightened by modern scholarly ideas, with excellent individual soloists and with unusually accomplished orchestral playing.

Hall's interpretation struck a middle-of-road position -- which is not to say it was bland -- between old-fashioned, almost Brahmsian, warmth and a lightness of articulation that never became mannered. Tempos were brisk when the music demanded excitement but never so fast that the soloists and choristers became uncomfortable. The members of the well-prepared chorus sang responsively and enthusiastically -- they knew they were singing a masterpiece, but were not intimidated by it.

The soloists were exceptionally well-matched. Tenor Timothy Bentch made a pointed, often intensely expressive Evangelist. Soprano Faith Okkema sang with beauty and clarity of tone that was complemented by the tenderness and warmth of mezzo-soprano Monica Reinagel. Baritone Randall Woodfield sang with a gravity that never became heavy and -- like that of the other soloists -- showed an almost lieder-like attention to detail. In her brief solo, chorister Robyn Stevens endowed the "echo" section of the first cantata with unearthly beauty.

Even in a two-week period in which this listener has heard extraordinary performances by the orchestras of Leipzig and St. Petersburg, the playing of Hall's musicians -- most of them members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- still stood out. It was marked by beauty of tone and unity of ensemble and by some extraordinary solo playing.

A very short list of exceptional moments would include: Langston Fitzgerald's fearless traversal of the treacherously high-lying trumpet line in the final cantata; the unerring accuracy and expressive warmth of concertmaster Andrew Wasyluszko and cellist Gita Roche; and the tenderness of Jane Marvine's oboe d'amore solo in the great bass aria of the fifth cantata. All of the splendid solos and ensemble work had the selflessness that characterizes a musician's awareness of the privilege it is to perform one of Bach's greatest masterpieces.

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