What composer is brave enough to write a new piece to be performed alongside Bach? Turns out that seven agreed to put their voices up against the master's. With financial support from the increasingly important Presser Foundation, Choral Arts Philadelphia with Philadelphia Bach Collegium, organist Bernard Kunkel, and conductor Matthew Glandorf presented the new works Wednesday night at St. Clement's Church, and a varied bunch they were.
Bach's Cantata BWV 61 was preceded by the premieres, all fairly brief and based on the Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent.
Mark Rimple's O Sapientia (O Wisdom) was a not entirely hospitable few minutes of brooding that was hard to square with its light-infused text. Daniel Shapiro created gently rolling waves of reassurance - redemption, even - in O Adonai (O Lord) that left you wanting to linger in its warmth. Kile Smith pivoted among an emotional trinity of strident, tense, and placid in O Rex Gentium (O King of Nations). David Ludwig, always a good judge of human response to evolving harmonies, appropriately mourned in the shadow of death in O Clavis David (O Key of David). Layers of meaning beautifully mirrored layers of vocal writing in Anthony Mosakowski's O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), in which the familiar hymn "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is doled out in pieces and interspersed with emotional swells.
What did any of this mean to the agnostics in the crowd? Of course, the Bach cantata stands on its own, divorced from its liturgical impetus, as pure musical treasure. It was performed by Choral Arts and the small instrumental ensemble with admirable enthusiasm.
To my ear, two of the new works stood especially tall on purely musical merits. Melissa Dunphy's O Oriens (O Morning) offered no gimmicks - just a model of sincerity, beautiful harmonic changes, and a great sensitivity to pitches and phrases that fall naturally on the human voice. Curtis Institute graduate Riho Esko Maimets, on a spare text of just a few lines, turned O Emmanuel into a journey - from floating (the score is marked "frozen, in prayer") to an organ cadenza with a repeated figure whose pedal note is grounded in something profound, as the hands busily evoke an ascending light. Both grew to a nearly unbearable brilliance.