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A balance of old and new

Urbana’s Nov. 6 concert at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Urbana built a musical bridge from a masterwork of the Baroque period by Dietrich Buxtehude to a recent work by Caroline Shaw.

Buxtehude was born in 1637 and died in 1707. A famous organist in Lübeck, northern Germany, he was an outstanding composer of an earlier phase of the Baroque period. Young Johann Sebastian Bach walked 250 miles to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play.

Buxtehude’s cycle of seven cantatas, entitled “Membra Jesu Nostri,” roughly translated as the “Bodily Members of Our Lord Jesus,” used as text a medieval poem, and the individual cantatas are religious meditations on the parts of the body, such as, in the first three cantatas, “To the Feet,” “To the Knees” and “To the Hands.”

If your standards for Baroque cantatas are the ones by J. S. Bach, Buxtehude’s seem to be of a simpler style, with sweet, homey melodies, but also with occasional Italianate vocal flourishes, and with contrapuntal mixture of vocal lines typical of Baroque music. The format of the seven cantatas followed mostly a repeated pattern of an instrumental sonata followed by a chorus, then a series of arias assigned to two sopranos, an alto, a tenor, and a bass, but the pattern a of voice types were changed so that variety could be maintained. The text of the individual cantatas mostly determined the mood of the aria words, so that in Cantata No. 6, “To the Heart,” the emphasis could be on the heart as the seat of emotions. In a series of works basically addressed to Christ on the cross, the emotional tone was quite varied, from joy to deep sympathy.

After the performance of the third cantata, “To the Hands,” the concert switched gears to a contemporary response to Buxtehude, in the form of a six-part piece called “To the Hands” by Caroline Shaw (b. 1982). Shaw’s work was part of a program of seven contemporary works commissioned to stand beside the original cantatas of Buxtehude in concert.

Shaw’s music begins in a gentle, modern expansion of Buxtehude’s style. Happily, here we have reverent commentary rather than music producing a shock effect. In Shaw’s second part, she changes Buxtehude’s text which asks, “What are those wounds in the midst of your hands …” to “ … in the midst of our hands,” thereby shifting the theme of her work to us, reaching out to help the displaced people of the world.

This theme is expanded in Shaw’s Third Part which references Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus,” engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, with its lines: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ….” Here the hands reach outward with help.

The most unusual section was the fifth, entitled “Litany of the Displaced,” in which the members of the chorus read out the numbers of the displaced from various countries, as listed by an international organization in 2016. This section had the strongest dramatic effect, but I found all of Shaw’s work to be fine choral writing, with highly imaginative use of the various choral groups.

The solo singers, Audrey Vallance and Ingrid Kammin, sopranos; Kendra Wieneke, alto; Hector Camacho-Salazar, tenor; and Jack Bertrand, bass, were very fine in the arias, and the BACH Chorus as a whole showed that the previous high standards of this fine group have been maintained by the latest director, Sarah Riskind. She has a bachelor’s degree in music from Williams College, a master’s of music degree in choral conducting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctor of music degree from the University of Washington.

The eloquent instrumental accompaniments were provided by violinists Ion-Alexandru Malaimare and Eun Namkung, violist Hannah Reitz, cellist Barbara Hedlund, Margaret Briskin, double bass, and Jonathan Young at the organ.

This concert was an excellent balance of old and new music. The mixture of the Buxtehude and Shaw showed sensitive and imaginative program building.

John Frayne hosts “Classics of the Phonograh” on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. His email is frayne@illinois.edu.

The Baroque Artists of Champaign-

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