I love the Baroque Era in music and art. It’s always exquisitely rendered, with a staggering amount of complexity. It’s beautiful and satisfying and diverting. Because of its essential playfulness, I have a bit of difficulty taking it seriously, so I was very interested in what I would learn from Maestro Kahane about JS Bach’s Cantata No. 140 “Sleepers Awake,” at this past Saturday’s Discover Concert in Pasadena.
Jeffrey Kahane first explained the Cantata was written for the last Sunday in the ecclesiastical year, which calls for giving thought to the second advent of Christ. The spoken sermon for this date would be taken from the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the arrival of “the bridegroom”. The Cantata is a celebration of the “soul’s impending union with its Saviour”. Kind of heavy stuff, right? He also broke down the structure of the piece, giving vocal and instrumental examples of recurring themes and motifs so we would have a better understanding of the import and meaning of what we were hearing when, after intermission, the entire Cantata was performed flawlessly by the Orchestra, the USC Thornton Chamber Singers, the LA Children’s Chorus and soloists Kathryn Mueller (soprano), Colin Ainsworth (tenor) and Andrew Craig Brown (bass). We were also provided with a translation into English of the German lyrics, which was great as it allowed me to connect with the story (with which I was unfamiliar).
Kahane also gave us some examples of current events that personally connected him to the sentiments of Bach’s Cantatas. They were beautifully bittersweet true tales of unconditional love and unreserved sacrifice for one’s fellow humans and they made me cry, at both the inhuman cruelty of the situations that led to the sacrifice and the power of true brotherly (sisterly) love. Even though the individuals involved made the ultimate sacrifice, their stories gave me hope that the “best” in us will prevail overall. I felt the examples were much more connected to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, rather than the resurrection or the Second Advent, but I got the general connection he was making. I enjoyed very much receiving insight into Kahane’s intellectual and emotional process when preparing to present a piece to the public.
One of the coolest things about Bach’s creative gifts was his ability to conjure up seemingly endless, expressive melodies within the symmetry of two chorale fantasias and a four-part closing chorale, which framed two sequences of recitative and aria. Another thing I liked was how he jumped in with both feet and gave us not one, but two duets with slightly over the top romance-y, almost bedchamber entendres (“I am yours, – love will never part us. I will with you – you will with me – graze among heaven’s roses, where complete pleasure and delight will be.”) that seemed designed to make everyone fidget a bit. It very effectively brought home the human experience of a passionate readiness to accept Christ into the physical body as well as the heart and soul. It was shameless. Bach was a Cantata original gangster.
A final comment – the audience was invited to sing along with the last chorale after the performance. More audience fidgeting, but I thought it was a nice touch. All in all, an enlightening evening.