Music Review: An 'amen' to a partnership

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The Berkshire Bach Society's spring choral concert ended with the "amen" of Vivaldi's familiar Gloria resounding through the First Congregational Church.

It seemed a fitting conclusion to the society's second spring collaboration with singers and instrumentalists from Bard College. Some things worked better than others in the Saturday twilight concert, but enough went right to suggest that the collaboration between Bach and Bard is a fruitful one.

James Bagwell conducted a program that went from Mozart to Vivaldi by way of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Jan Dismas Zelenka. At his disposal was a mix of students, faculty and professionals making up an eight-member chorus and the modern-instrument Bard Baroque Ensemble.

The good news first: Bagwell, a leading choral conductor who once headed a Berkshire Bach chorus, can get the best out of his singers. Despite members' differences in vocal power and vibrato, the chorus sang impressively in two short motets by Mozart, Zelenka's Magnificat and the Vivaldi Gloria.

In the well-paced performances, Mozart's exuberant "Regina Coeli" (Queen of heaven) suggested that he had spent time with Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus. And was ever a more ravishing sacred work composed than Mozart's little "Ave Verum Corpus" (Hail, the true body)? And though the Czech Zelenka's Magnificat is no match for his contemporary J.S. Bach's, it's good to hear it once in a while.

Also despite differences in style, the women of the chorus — sopranos Margaret Dudley and Ellen Sisson and altos Teresa Buchholz and Irene Snyder — were fervent as soloists in the Zelenka and Vivaldi works. Oboist Stephen Hammer contributed a poignant obbligato in the Vivaldi.

Another plus in the program: Helena Baillie and Marka Gustavsson carrying on a genial conversation in W.F. Bach's Duet No. 3 for two violas. If Mozart borrowed from Handel, Wilhelm Friedemann quoted from his dad Johann Sebastian's "Art of the Fugue."

Less effective was the playing of the 12-member orchestra, which sounded underpowered and indistinct much of the time. This could have had to do with the afternoon's muffling heat or the musicians' placement.

While the chorus and vocal soloists sang from an elevated platform behind an organ console, the orchestra was spread out below, with its sound beamed to the front rows. The balances were especially dicey in Mozart's oft-performed Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, which became a concertante for violin, viola and two horns as the Bard horns dominated the orchestra. At times, even the lively, stylish solo work of Baillie (now on violin) and violist Gustavsson was overwhelmed.

The program notes made much of the use of the Sinfonia Concertante and the Zelenka and Vivaldi works in movies. Borrowing from the masters, it appears, goes on in modern guise.


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