The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: What makes J.S. Bach’s cantatas so great? Bach used all his many skills and re-invented himself weekly, says Trevor Stephenson of the Madison Bach Musicians, who will perform two cantatas and a motet this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Grace Episcopal Church. | April 12, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the delights of each concert season for the past few years has been to hear J.S. Bach’s cantatas performed by the early music group the Madison Bach Musicians (below), founded and led by Trevor Stephenson, a keyboardist and conductor who trained at Cornell University under the renowned keyboardist Malcolm Bilson.

Stephenson opts for the much smaller ensembles (below) that scholars now say was closer to Bach’s original groups than for larger choruses. As a result the music has a transparency that moves the mind and stirs the heart.

This weekend features two performances at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square at 116 West Washington Avenue: At 8 p.m. on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.  Both performances are preceded at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively, by a lecture given by Stephenson, who is a thoroughly engaging, accessible and witty explainer.

The all-Bach program features Cantata BWV 22 – “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”; Cantata BWV 32 – “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen”; and the Motet BWV 230 – “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.”

Soloists are UW-Madison trained soprano Emily Birsan and bass David Govertsen, both of whom currently sing at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The countertenor, Joseph Schlesinger (who now lives in Chicago) has toured Europe for many years as an early music specialist; the tenor, Daniel O’Dea is outstanding and is working on his DMA at UW under Jim Doing.

For more information, visit madisonbachmusicians.org or phone 608 238-6092

Advance ticket prices are: $20 General, $15 Students/Seniors (over 65).
Tickets at the door: $25 General, $20 Students/Seniors.
Cash or checks only. Make checks payable to Madison Bach Musicians. (Only cash or check are accepted; no credit cards.)

Advance tickets can be purchased at 

Orange Tree Imports; Farley’s House of Pianos; A Room of One’s Own; Ward Brodt Music Mall; and  Willy Street Co-op, East and West locations.

Trevor Stephenson (below) recently talked to The Ear about the Bach cantata project and the upcoming performances:

Why do you focus on the Bach cantatas and what are MBM’s plans for the cycle?

I like the Bach Cantatas because in them he brings everything to the table—they are the ultimate fusion of his spirit and intellect: a tenacious, enduring faith joined with an astonishingly original musical craft.

More than 200 of Bach’s Cantatas have survived (though he wrote probably more than 300) and somehow every one of them is unique—cut from a fresh block of marble.

Since many were written during a period when he was composing one per week, you could say with a good degree of sureness that Bach (below) really did re-invent himself every week!

Can you walk us a bit through each piece and tell us what to listen for?

On this concert we’ll perform “Jesu, nahm zu sich die Zwoelfe” a Cantata Bach composed specifically for his audition at Leipzig in early 1723. As we all know, he did get the job, and upon moving to Leipzig that year, plunged into his most intense period of Cantata creation during the next four years.

This Cantata begins with Jesus calling together the 12 disciples to tell them that they will all travel to Jerusalem “so that what has been written of the Son of Man will be fulfilled.” The disciples do not comprehend what Jesus is saying (primarily, that he will be crucified).

At that point the narrative really ceases and the soul takes over (in the guises of an alto solo, an extensive bass recitative (by David Govertsen, below), and a tenor aria) all developing the idea that one should now truly try to understand what the disciples at that time could not—that Jesus’ love for humanity was boundless, and that through his example we should strive to live properly and fully.

The melodic writing and texture of this Cantata foreshadows the St. Matthew Passion which Bach would complete just four years later and which he may have been working on already; indeed the narrative part of the St. Matthew Passion also opens with the scene in which Jesus unexpectedly announces the departure for Jerusalem.

And the other cantata?

Also on this program, we’ll perform BWV 32 “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (Dear Jesus, my longing). Composed for the first Sunday after Epiphany in January of 1726, it opens with one of Bach’s most elegant arias in which the soprano and obbligato oboe lines weave about each other in what seems like a miraculous improvisation—though of course Bach writes everything out in careful detail.

This is certainly one of my, what we call, “desert island” pieces–if you were sent to a desert island and could only take a few pieces, what would they be?

We’re delighted that baroque oboist extraordinaire Luke Conklin (below) —a graduate of the Juilliard baroque program, and now working on his doctorate at Indiana—will be joining us on this program. Bach lavishes some of the most expressive writing in the Cantatas on the baroque oboe, with its very warm and textured timbre. Luke will play several solos in the Cantatas we’ve selected for this concert.

We are also thrilled to be playing these Cantatas at Grace Episcopal Church (below, with exterior and interior photos, on the Capitol Square), which is a wonderful setting for this music both spiritually and acoustically. The sound there is reverberant and clear. The music carries, mixes, and reflects all around and yet you can still understand the words. Many spaces have one quality or the other, but Grace has both!

Where are you in the Cantata cycle and what are future plans?

With the concerts coming this weekend, Madison Bach Musicians will have performed 15 of Bach’s Cantatas (plus the B minor Mass in 2008 and the St. Matthew Passion in 2009).

Right now that puts us on a pace of about two each year (this is our eighth season).

But public interest in, and support for the project is growing quickly. In addition, the number of wonderful instrumentalists trained on baroque instruments and singers trained in the baroque style has risen dramatically even in the past decade.

So, we anticipate being able to increase the number of Cantatas we perform each year. We hope to present many, many more!


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