Emmanuel Music’s “Bach Reinvented” contrasts musical art, high and low

April 10, 2016 at 7:33 pm

By David Wright

Dancer Haley Day and baritone David Kravitz, in Emmanuel Musci;s "Bach Reimagined" program. Photo: Josh Kastrof

Dancer Haley Day and baritone David Kravitz, in Emmanuel Musci;s “Bach Reimagined” program. Photo: Josh Kastrof

Emmanuel Church was the unlikely site of a played, sung and danced debate on the merits of high and low art Saturday night, as the orchestra and singers of Emmanuel Music joined forces with the Urbanity Dance company in boisterous performances of J.S. Bach’s comic cantata The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan and Kurt Weill’s “sung ballet” The Seven Deadly Sins.

In introductory remarks with Ryan Turner, artistic director of Emmanuel Music, Urbanity Dance director Betsi Graves pleaded to the audience to “remain open” to what they were about to see. One understood why when the Weill performance got under way, as colored lights swirled around the church’s gray Gothic limestone walls and even the bas-relief of the Last Supper over the altar was pressed into service for satirical purposes.

It seemed like a fitting close to “Bach Reimagined,” this season’s off-the-cantata-reservation concert series by Emmanuel Music, featuring not their usual admirable renderings of standard repertoire but a dizzying array of Bach-related arrangements, speculations, and homages.

Saturday’s program was titled “Bach Reinvented,” suggesting that the Weill work was a sort of cantata for the mid-20th century. The program notes by Turner cited a quotation from Weill admiring Bach as artist and practical musician, who proved that art could “uphold its standards” while being useful and comprehensible to the public. 

Bach’s own Phoebus and Pan, however, had some fun at the expense of low public taste. Writing for an orchestra and audience largely consisting of the university students who patronized Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig, Bach and his librettist Picander put a sizable thumb on the scale for the god Phoebus, representing elevated sentiments and learned art, in his singing contest with the pop star Pan. 

On Saturday, dancers interpreted the action on narrow platforms and in the center aisle as the gods Momus (spiritedly sung by Susan Consoli) and Mercury (a more reserved alto Krista River) called for the contest. Baritone Dana Whiteside was all dignity and sensitive phrasing as Phoebus (in the church’s pulpit, no less), singing the sad yet inspiring tale of the doomed love of Apollo and Hyacinthus. Dancer Jacob Regan accompanied him with classical poses in a long, sustained adagio.

Baritone David Kravitz, on the other hand, was all low comedy as a mugging, bellowing, barking Pan, whose appalling taste made Bill Murray’s lounge singer on “Saturday Night Live” sound like Fischer-Dieskau. Haley Day was the energetic, jiggly go-go dancer.

Mortals were called in to pronounce judgment on the gods’ performances, “American Idol” style, with tenor Matthew Anderson as the mountain king Timolus rendering a melodious, measured verdict in favor of Phoebus, and tenor Frank Kelley as Midas (he of the “golden touch”) yowling extravagantly in praise of Pan. Not surprisingly, the gods gave the nod to Phoebus and drove Midas away with ridicule.

Urbanity dancers, dressed in vaguely classical loincloths, accompanied all this with gestures graceful or spastic to fit the music, for a time forming a sort of living, moving frieze along the church’s side wall. 

The burlesque antics of Kravitz and Kelley as Pan and Midas did get a few laughs, but one wonders if the humor wouldn’t have run deeper if they had played it straight, like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, the would-be gentleman singing his favorite ditty to his snobbish music teacher. 

Bach slipped some subtle humor into the orchestra as well, with twirling flutes announcing the wind-god Phoebus, and parallelisms and other contrapuntal “faults” in Pan’s clumsy accompaniment. Turner and the players also had some faults of ensemble early on, perhaps while adjusting to playing in the dark with only music-stand lights, but then pulled it together to give a colorful performance.

The orchestra, which is not a specialized early-music band but an ensemble of some of this city’s top freelancers, showed its versatility in the concert’s second half, shifting gears from Baroque to eclectic Modern for The Seven Deadly Sins.

Everything from Bach to foxtrots echoed in Weill’s saucy score, which made no theological points, instead using the traditional list of seven naughty actions as hooks on which to hang the tale of dual-natured Anna, bouncing around to various cities in America in search of a livelihood and money to send home (Anna I, boldly sung by mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove) and artistic fulfillment (the expressive dancer Meghan Anderson as Anna II). 

The four male singers from Phoebus returned in the roles of Anna’s parents and brothers, commenting on her progress from back home in Louisiana. (By assigning all the family roles to men, Weill seemed to be making a proto-feminist statement about who ruled the roost in 1933, when this piece was composed. The point was presumably not lost on a 2016 audience, either.)

As Anna I, a role written for Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya, Torgove evoked some of that singer’s trademark world-weary twang, her voice slipping from song to sarcastic speech as she told of life’s harsh realities over a slinky cabaret accompaniment. Strong of stance and voice, she stood up well to the drama’s unrelenting spotlight on her.

The character’s triumphs and reverses were echoed in a free dance style by the versatile dancer Anderson, who besides dancing had to get herself to various locations in the church, from the chancel steps to the rear balcony to a moving platform in the aisle. 

In this she was helped by her fellow dancers who, when not busy interpreting the story in jazz or ballroom style around the church, hoisted Anderson overhead or, in one memorable moment, lay on a platform and log-rolled her from one end of it to the other.

The family quartet tackled its role of male authority figures with gusto, singing fiercely from the front of the chancel, intoning the “Gluttony” chorale (which is more like a Schubert part-song than a Bach chorale, actually) from an upper gallery, but mostly staying “home” near the altar, under the aforementioned Last Supper relief.

The different-colored spotlights trained on that biblical scene during this production were an ambiguous gesture, to say the least. Did they imply that the church is just another bourgeois, materialistic institution, like the family? Or was a dinner scene of deep spiritual importance highlighted to make a point, by contrast, about the grubby nature of Anna’s family life? 

In any case, there was nothing ambiguous about the stylish playing of the orchestra under Turner’s direction, which got those mid-century rhythms and Weill’s distinctive blend of tenderness and bitter irony just right.

If the rationale for throwing these two pieces together was a little hazy—and in Boston, we do like to have our rationales in order—nevertheless, much visual and listening pleasure was to be had Saturday night, if one “remained open” to it.

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