University Singers take us ‘Bach’ to the basics

May 24, 2024, 2:09 a.m.

This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Memorial Church lit up in a glorious celebration of Bach’s transcendent musical genius at the University Singers’ “All Bach” Spring Concert on Wednesday.

An orchestra accompanied the choral ensemble through the concert, which opened with three different motets (a sacred choral piece with many vocal parts) and cantatas (compositions for vocalist and orchestral ensembles made up of multiple movements). Directed by Robert Huw Morgan, the singers expertly navigated hymn tunes entrenched in Christian imagery and traversed the variegated moods of the human condition. The concert was sung entirely in German. Printed lyrics in the program offered direct translations.

While the opening song “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren” rang with jubilant, soaring “Amen”s, the second piece took a darker yet more musically impressive turn. “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” a funeral work, began with the orchestra, immediately taking on a more somber tone. The steady bass beat in the orchestra intertwined with the choral lament to create a beautiful, meditative piece. 

The concert was also pleasantly full of soloists. The multi-movement “Der Herr denket an uns,” which concluded the first half of the concert, suggested a wedding scene with its ceremonious, orchestra-only beginning that transitioned into joyous choral movements. The piece featured soprano Sarah Kramer M.A. ’18, tenor Conor Messer M.S. ’25 and bass Benjamin Weissman, program director of Cardinal Careers. The melody had an attention-grabbing circularity, with Kramer’s angelic soprano alternating up and down on select syllables in her solo.

Weissman came back to sing with heartrending nuance after the intermission. Soprano Tatyana Sgaraglino ’26, tenor Doran Goldman ’23 and alto and Rae Brown, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry, joined him in the extensive “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen.” As the only work during the second half of the concert, the piece immediately revealed its sturdiness as winds, trumpets and timpani joined the orchestra to herald in the choir. The piece recounted the ascension of Christ, shifting from sorrowful duets and solo arias depicting Jesus’ departure to gleeful trumpet fanfares as the lyrics shifted toward anticipating Christ’s arrival.

Brown was a standout, with their mellow tones shining through in an aria during the first half of the piece. The alto soloist’s plaintive and innocent vocals struck a mournful tone with the strings’ Lacrimosa-esque accompaniment and plodding cello line in the background. Goldman and Weissman were also impressive — Weissman sang an inquisitive, uplifting recitativo that was delivered in the cadence of ordinary speech. Goldman was also serious and didactic in his recitativo, reasserting the lyrics’ weighty Biblical context.

Like most well-planned performances, the concert saved the best for last, with Sgaraglino coming forth for her aria right before the last chorus. Sgaraglino’s high notes knew no bounds as she whirled through steady melodic ascensions and didn’t even seem to lose breath in the undertaking. Her mature voice rang with clarity and reflected an upward hopefulness, which transitioned into the entire choir joining in. 

Coupled with the joyful strings, the choir’s rich layers turned the night into a triumphant celebration of Bach’s lucidity. The performance offered refreshing insight into what it means to touch the divine through a pure and noble melody.

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