The spacious acoustics of St. Francis de Asis Church atop McMillan Mesa will ring with the resonant sounds of voices and a chamber orchestra this Monday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. as The Master Chorale of Flagstaff presents the opening concert in its current season. Whimsically titled “Go for Baroque,” this always eagerly anticipated event pairs selections from George Frederic Handel’s beloved oratorio “Messiah” with choral works by Handel’s contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach and by some notable but perhaps lesser known of the latter’s predecessors and contemporaries. A 22-piece instrumental ensemble will accompany the choral works.
Earlier this month, Lutheran congregations throughout the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the legendary statement of faith by the German priest Martin Luther, a revolutionary act that sparked what became known as the “Protestant Revolution.” Various works by composers of that era and beyond the time of Bach are featured on the first half of Monday evening’s program and offer a glimpse into the importance of the musical form of the Lutheran chorale or hymn that became a vital part of worship for congregations both then and in our own time. From the late 15th century through the better portion of the 18th, literally hundreds of “chorale” tunes were created for congregational singing by relatively untrained singers, and then given more elaborate arrangements for both instrumental and vocal forces. These were intended for use in portions of the very lengthy religious services characteristic of that time.
Master Chorale of Flagstaff Musical Director Tom Peterson has assembled representative examples of this important genre of choral music for this concert, supplementing a more extended work by Bach, the Cantata “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star,” a beautiful work that perfectly illustrates the development of this form in the 18th century. It was first heard at the Feast of the Ascension on March 3, 1725.
The performance of this Cantata will be preceded by varied settings of the chorale, one by its original composer, theologian and poet Phillip Nicolai (1556-1608) and harmonized by Bach, another by Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), a contemporary of Bach who interestingly applied for the job as Cantor of St. Thomas in 1723, but was not able to take the position when his current employer refused to release him (and then rewarded him with a larger salary!).
The Chorale Cantata “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” is a wonderful example of the “chorale fantasia” style often employed by Bach when he had sufficient competent players and singers at his disposal. It alternates extended instrumental passages in an “Italian concertato” style with equally florid writing for the lower three voices (sopranos carry the chorale melody above the elaborate figurations). Bach sometimes used the young voices of his St. Thomas boy choir in less demanding roles depending on the level of their training.
The Arizona Mountain Chorale, a select group drawn from the membership of the Master Chorale, will perform chorale-based works by two other Baroque-era composers, Johann Walther (1496-1570) and Johann Friedrich Doles (1715-1797). In a bow to the Reformation anniversary, we will hear a familiar chorale tune, Walther’s setting of “Ein feste Burg” known in most contemporary hymnals as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Walther had a close association with Martin Luther in developing the chorale as a foundation of Lutheran worship practice. Doles succeeded Bach as Cantor at St. Thomas, and it curious that he is not better known.
In recognition of the Thanksgiving celebration this week, the Master Chorale returns to offer three settings of the familiar chorale “Now Thank We All our God.” Johann Crüger (1598-1662) originally authored this tune and had a close collaboration with Luther in the development of Protestant liturgical music. Graupner is again represented in the distinctive operatic style for which he is better known. Colorful and energetic instrumental passages alternate with the sung chorale. Finally, Bach’s setting of the chorale is extracted from a cantata written for a Reformation festival in October 1725.
Twelve selections from “Messiah” follow intermission, with soloists YeLynn Han, Sally Krueger, Anna Golobek and Lynne Nemeth. Tom Peterson and assistant director Brad Beale share direction of the “Messiah” performance.