Sunday, December 13, 2009

Leaping into a challenge

Des sich wundert alle Welt:
Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

At this the whole world wonders,

That God has ordained such a birth.

The choir of First Baptist Church at 517 E. Washington in Ann Arbor has several very important assets--a good director and back-up director, an excellent accompanist, and the financial wherewithal to pay section leaders and hire a small orchestra to accompany them on this particular Sunday morning. Nevertheless, for a group of amateur singers, taking on a challenging piece can feel like driving toward the precipice of a cliff, hoping that it will all work out. With the work of singers and instrumentalists and some help from commentary by Pastor Paul Simpson Duke, it all did work out, and served as spiritual preparation for Christmas.

The commercial sector sometimes helps to confuse churches regarding the difference between Advent, the time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas, and Christmas itself. Choral performances by groups in advance of Christmas, sometimes well in advance, also contribute to this. But First Baptist today built their entire service around the Advent music of "Savior of the Nations, Come," or in German, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland."

I sat in the choir loft at the rear of the church, close enough to reach through the grating and touch the organ pipes, albeit at risk of the swell box baffles closing on my hand. The service started with a prelude based on "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland," with the oboe stop singing it right in my ear. I have attended this church before, and have heard much talk about the skills of organist Joel Hastings. He definitely showed the organ who is boss today. Some of his organ work might be described as antics, and brought big smiles to the faces of the university students who were brought in as the orchestra. One example is that he twisted the cliche of modulating the key up a half step when going on to a new stanza; instead, he did it going into the refrain of "Angels We Have Heard on High." If you are not a professional musician and don't get the musical joke here, you're excused.

In addition to being played as the prelude and offertory, "Savior of the Nations Come" was also sung as a congregational hymn and served as the theme of the centerpiece of this service, the cantata "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland" by Johann S. Bach, BWV 62, which took the place of the sermon. Under the baton of Brandon Straub, the cantata featured an aria performed by tenor section leader Kyle Tomlin and another performed by bass/bari section leader Brian Rosenblume, as well as a duet recitative performed by soprano section leader Bonnie Kidd and alto section leader Lucy Thompson, along with two movements from the full chorus.

In his commentary that introduced and interjected into the cantata, Pastor Paul Duke drew on the theme of connections to Christian believers of past eras--this tune dates back to a Latin hymn of the 4th century, then was set in German by Martin Luther in the 16th century and made into a cantata by Bach in the 18th century and is still with us. He noted that Bach always wrote at the end of his pieces "S.D.G.," the song of the angels of Christmas, for "soli dei gloria" or "to God alone be the glory." He highlighted the theme of wonder that occurs throughout the cantata, and pointed out the juxtaposition of Jesus as a baby and as a heroic athlete or warrior--"Be strength to us who are weak, Our human weakness make strong! We honor this glory And draw near now to your cradle." This is reflected in the bass aria by the full-throated vocals accompanied by a high-pitched whisper on some flute stops of the organ, as well as a dancing obbligato on the cello, performed by Madeline Huberth.

This performance was preceded by a Thursday evening rehearsal struck through with anxiety. The Bach score is not easy, and there were plenty of kinks to work out at the beginning of rehearsal. Working through the seemingly conflicting goals of knowing what you should be singing right now and watching the director to know exactly when you should be doing it is a problem that dogs all choirs, and is generally solved simply by working--repetition and getting serious about knowing your part. A lot of that was happening at this rehearsal.

Because Mr. Straub was absent for another musical commitment, rehearsal was led by Bonnie Kidd, who also does choral directing at Huron High School and at the middle school level. This background shows in her style of talking and leading a rehearsal. She is someone who does not so much command attention as cajole attention, such as when she corrected pronunciation by saying that the German article "dem" is pronounced just like the misogynistic term used by the sailors in Rogers and Hammerstein's song "There is Nothing Like a Dame."

At the end of rehearsal we sang and ate cake to celebrate the birthday of choir member John Reed (photo), the former Dean of the University of Michigan School of Law, and who also spent some years directing this choir. Friday was his 91st birthday.

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