Yes, Even Bach Had to Pass an Audition

by Vivien Schweitzer

The New York Times


It’s strange to imagine a musical deity like Bach humbly applying for a job and being judged by inferior mortals. It’s even odder to think that he initially wasn’t the preferred candidate for the dual position of cantor of St. Thomas Church and music director of Leipzig.

But not surprisingly, Bach wowed the Leipzig city council at his audition. At a concert on Thursday night at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, the New York Collegium and Andrew Parrott presented the two employer-pleasing cantatas (BWV 22 and 23), as well as Cantata 75 (the first he wrote after taking the position) in a program titled “Leipzig 1723: Mr. Bach Comes to Town.”

The presence of the Collegium, however, will unfortunately be diminished, as budget woes stemming from “rising expenses and static revenues” have forced the ensemble (which gave its debut concert in 1999) to scale back its performances drastically next season.

The Collegium offered the large crowd that turned up for its seasonal swan song a worthy performance. The strings played with conviction and a lively lilt, and there were excellent contributions from Stephen Hammer on oboe d’amore, the alto version of the instrument invented in the Leipzig area a few years before Bach’s appointment. A messy trumpet solo in BWV 75 was the only blip in an otherwise commendable orchestral performance.

The vocal soloists, including the tenor Marc Molomot and the soprano Emily Van Evera, were strong, although Kirsten Sollek, who sang with an appealingly rich alto, and the bass Curtis Streetman, who performed with dramatic flair, were the most consistently solid.

The soloists also doubled as the chorus, joined by an additional four singers. Mr. Parrott is a disciple of the musicologist Joshua Rifkin, who theorized in 1981 that Bach’s choral works were performed with a single voice to a part, instead of the soaring, majestic choruses familiar to most listeners.

While orchestral harmonies and the singers’ words were often clearer in this pared-down version, the overall effect was like eating fruit salad instead of chocolate cake. It may be the right thing to do, but the luxurious, full-fat treat is more tempting.