We think of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20 offspring as his only children.
But let’s not forget his other children: 200 years’ worth of composers, some featured Thursday evening in the Kansas City debut of the Thomanerchor Leipzig and the Leipzig Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Georg Christoph Biller at the Folly Theater.
The choir that became known as “Bach’s Own” was founded in 1212, and Bach led it from 1723 until his death in 1750. At the Folly, the current choir of 40 boys and young men sang with impeccable craftsmanship, wonderful balance and a convincing emotional engagement proper to this program’s religious bent.
Bach and his friend Georg Philipp Telemann collaborated to write “Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt” in the early 1720s. The choir handled Bach’s startlingly modern harmonies with the greatest of ease and responded with joyous, even propulsive singing to Telemann’s third movement.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Kyrie and Robert Schumann’s “Verzweifle Nicht im Schmerzenstal” were sung a capella and demonstrated the group’s wide sympathy with emotionally complex material.
Mendelssohn’s plea for the Lord’s mercy makes its case with an underlying sense of peace. This was made plain in the chorus’ performance.
Schumann’s “Despair not” is almost the opposite. The performance projected Schumann’s confidence in the rightness of life but also made clear its poignancy because of Schumann’s unsettled mind.
Bach’s “Der Herr denket an uns” is calm, reassuring, and fugue, fugue, fugue. The chorus and instrumentalists exposed its architecture with great clarity under Biller’s direction and made its joyous finale sound almost like laughter.
Mendelssohn’s 1844 “Jauchzet dem Herrn” alternates delicate Renaissance-like polyphony with solid, chunky, Victorian church music chording. Mendelssohn’s interesting contrast made an effective way for Biller to showcase his musicians’ versatility.
The limpid pieces of Max Reger’s “Geistliche Gesange” (1914) breathe the spirit of simple faith. They gave the chorus ample showcase for its wonderful unison phrasing and unity of spirit.
The grand finale was Bach’s complex, dramatic and practically gleeful motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied.”
For this the chorus was joined by the Leipzig Baroque Orchestra’s splendid instrumentalists in a typical Baroque configuration of five strings, three winds and a keyboard (a cabinet organ in this case).
The concert was an impressive performance by all. Especially considering that Thomanerchor Leipzig singer ages range from only 18 all the way down to 10.