Central Vermont loves the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, local music lovers can’t get enough, if Capital City Concerts sold-out program, “Magnificat,” last October was any indication. Some 800 people packed St. Augustine’s Church — a record for any concert in the Capital City, I think — for this glorious vocal, choral and instrumental music. (The repeat concert at Burlington’s St. Paul’s Cathedral sold out as well, but that’s significantly smaller.)
Capital City Concerts hopes for a repeat response next week when it presents this year’s all-Bach program, “Sleepers Awake,” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20 at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Soloists will be violinist Laurie Smukler, soprano Hyunah Yu, tenor Steven Paul Spears and baritone Nathanial Sullivan, with chorus and orchestra conducted by Richard Riley.
The centerpiece of this program is the Cantata BWV 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us),” also known as “Sleepers Awake,” one of Bach’s most popular and familiar church cantatas. Cantatas were musical programs for the Protestant service, this one opening with a rousing chorale fantasia, featuring two recitatives and two delicious duets, and closing with a magnificent chorale, or hymn.
The “Wachet auf” chorale has a fascinating history: In the late 16th century, a plague spread through parts of Europe, including a town in Germany called Unna where over 1300 residents died during this outbreak. When Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), pastor of the town’s church became deathly ill, he recorded his meditations in a journal. Against all odds, he recovered and wrote the hymn “Wachet auf” in gratitude. His moving hymn achieved immortality and became the setting for this cantata.
Of the vocal soloists, Yu is the most familiar, having appeared in many Capital City Concerts as well as the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival and Marlboro Music Festival. The Korean-American, who lives in Baltimore, made her professional debut at Blanche Moyse’s legendary New England Bach Festival in Marlboro in 1999 in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
Spears, too, was a protégée of Moyse, performing for many years at her Bach Festival. Sullivan performed at last year’s Bach concert to great acclaim. The three vocal soloists will each be featured in a solo aria, and the chorus and orchestra will perform the motet “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all nations),” BWV 230.
Smukler, another familiar face at Capital City Concerts and a virtuoso violinist of refinement and musical depth, will be soloist in the Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041. The bittersweet work is a joy of lyricism allowing the violinist to “sing.” The professional chamber orchestra is comprised of top Vermont musicians as well as instrumentalists from the New York City Ballet and Opera orchestras, and the Mostly Mozart Festival.
For me, and I was Moyse’s assistant for many years, this is a rich and substantial program performed by some of my favorite musicians. For those for whom this isn’t enough, there is an equally substantial program with some of the same soloists tomorrow in Brattleboro.
Yu, Spears and Sullivan, joined by mezzo-soprano Katherine Maysek, will be the soloists when the Blanche Moyse Chorale and Blanche Moyse Memorial Orchestra, directed by Mary Westbrook-Geha, will perform a tribute to festival veteran baritone Sanford Sylvan (1953-2019) at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Brattleboro Music Center. On the program is again, Cantata BWV 140, as well as Cantatas BWV 100, 105 and 131. (Tickets are $25; call 802-257-4523, or go online to https://bmcvt.org.)
No surprise, I will be at both.