If Joseph Caulkins proved anything at the Key Chorale’s recent “Bach to Bach” concert at the Sarasota Opera House, it was that there are many ways to interpret Bach, whether it’s Johann Sebastian or his outcast relative, P.D.Q.
The opening “Kyrie” from J.S. Bach’s “B Minor Mass,” for example, has more recordings than Caulkins could shake his baton at, from Gardiner’s and Rifkin’s forays into one voice per part, to the incredibly slow and drawn out version by Jochum, the declamatory but legato reading from Von Karajan, and the varied interpretations by Helmut Rilling (he recorded the work four times, in four different ways).
Caulkins, who worked with Rilling, chose the Bach scholar’s staccato, two-note phrasing of the opening “Kyrie” that was, to my ears, strange, uncharacteristic, ponderous and unstylistic. But, then, I don’t claim to channel Bach and can only give my interpretation of what the composer wanted when he wrote this masterpiece more than two centuries ago.
To give credit where it’s due, however, Key Chorale followed every detail and every nuance Caulkins called for, and there wasn’t for one moment any question about what the conductor wanted.
And so went the first part of Key’s “Bach to Bach” concert, which included an excellent reading of the G major “Brandenburg Concerto” by the orchestra, a Caulkins-style revisiting of the B minor in the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” a glossy version of the glorious “Ruht wohl,” (usually one of the most comforting pieces of music I know) from the “St. John Passion” and concluded with an excerpt from the “Easter Oratorio.”
The second half, devoted to “Lowlights from the Pen of P.D.Q. Bach” — an unloved, shrouded, clouded and, until the latter half of the last century, untouted descendent of the Bach family (aka Professor Peter Schickele), proved to be the highlight of the afternoon.
Anyone who had the joy of sitting in Carnegie Hall while P.D.Q. himself flew over our heads in one of the most dramatic and, um, unstylistic entrances ever made by a composer of such infamous pedagogy, knows that with P.D.Q., anything goes. And, although Cliff Roles’ over-the-top impersonation of “Big Daddy” Bach was a tad on the schticky side, it was all in good fun and instinctive humor. (So were the wonderful supertitles that translated, commented on and mocked the uproarious stage shenanigans.)
Soprano Kathy Pyeatt and mezzo Rachel Assi made an excellent impression in their solos in the “Birthday Ode to Big Daddy Bach” and a hilarious Choral Cantata called “Knock, Knock,” in which corny but highly amusing knock-knock jokes became Baroque-ly unabashed belly blasters.
The chorus had its turn to shine in “The Art of the Ground Round — Jane, My Jane,” and P.D.Q.’s madrigal spoof from “The Triumph of Thusnelda” to “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth.”
Don’t let the humor fool you. In some ways, P.D.Q. is harder to sing and interpret than Johann Sebastian. Humor rests on that fine line between kitschy and clever. And, although there were moments of sheer kitsch, the ensemble and soloists’ clarity of diction, intelligent demeanor and obvious enjoyment and enthusiasm won the afternoon.
The program could have been a little shorter, and the choral sound could have been a little leaner, but there’s nothing wrong with good, honest fun. And Key Chorale provided that in heaps and heaps. Finally, the concert’s finale was a return to Johann Sebastian and his joyous chorus, “Jauchzet, Frohlocket,” from the “Christmas Oratorio.”
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