At the last Bach at Seven concert on April 9, the music director of the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, Matthew Glandorf, added a perfect grace note to the event when he announced the series will continue next season. Unlikely as it may seem, a monthly series centered on Bach cantatas has become a popular midweek break that fills the pews at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. When you combine first-class music with an after-concert reception buoyed by some memorable wines, the result is a kind of high-level happy hour.
Glandorf has put together a unique, effective format. The concerts last one hour without a break, and they feature one Bach cantata supplemented by two or three other pieces related to the cantata. Some of the extra pieces date from Bach’s own time. Others are modern works that present interesting contrasts or shine a different light on Bach’s texts and musical themes. He has made no concessions to anyone’s desire for “easy listening.” The cantatas themselves are religious works, composed for performance during church services, featuring standard religious texts and sentiments. The other works can be demanding. The format succeeds because the rigorous time limit reduces the demand on the audience’s attention span. You can listen very intently when you know you’re only going to be listening for an hour, and you’re being treated to music that repays that kind of attention.
The rewards outweigh the stress imposed on fidgety modern psyches. The February cantata was a setting of the Magnificat that included moments like a joyous soprano solo answered by an equally joyous Baroque oboe. The March cantata ended with the only example I’ve ever heard of a choral chaconne — a Baroque variation form that usually includes a short bass line repeated under the variations. The text for the final movement contained eight short lines, with no repeat, and Bach wrote a variation for every line. It was a beautiful example of the exuberant creativity that runs through Bach’s work and evokes a joie de vivre that transcends the sectarian messages in the religious texts.
The works that accompany the cantatas usually contain some surprises. The March program paired Henry Purcell’s setting of a short text with a ringing contemporary setting of the same words by the British choral composer Bob Chilcott. The April concert reached backward to one of Bach’s predecessors and presented two moving scene-painting violin sonatas composed to accompany meditations on the Stations of the Cross.
The wines are a happy accident. They’re donated by a local wine company and served in real glasses by a vintner who enjoys talking about his wares. The fact that the reception takes place in the back of the church, rather than a special room, enhances the sense that you’re attending a festive occasion such as a christening or a holiday service.
The Bach Festival of Philadelphia has gone through a number of transformations since Michael Korn founded it in 1976. There was a time when it mostly imported traveling groups, such as foreign university choirs, that were inferior to Philadelphia’s local choruses and early music organizations. Glandorf has returned it to its roots as an organization that employs the city’s wealth of local talent and infused it with his own artistic vision and musicological expertise. His latest experiment with format proves that a creative leader can maintain artistic standards and attract a solid audience.
Bach Festival of Philadelphia, Bach at Seven: Cantatas by J.S. Bach, additional music by others. Bach Collegium of Philadelphia, orchestra. Choral Arts Philadelphia, chorus. Matthew C. Glandorf, Director.
One Wednesday per month, in season, at 7pm at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1625 Locust St., Philadelphia, dates for 2014-15 to be announced. Free will offering, $20 suggested. 267-240-ALTO or www.choralarts.com.