The last time I saw TENET Vocal Artists was in the Before Time: May 2018, to be exact. On that occasion the celebrated vocal ensemble was singing some of the oldest European music still available to us today – music from (you could say) the very, very Before Time.
The context of TENET’s latest concert could hardly have been more different. Rather than secular, sometimes ribald French folk songs from as long ago as the 13th century, the eight members of the versatile vocal group performed explicitly religious motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, sung in a church and accompanied by 10 fine and sturdy instrumentalists.
The majesty of Bach’s genius beamed out from the sound of eight parts (double choir) with just one voice to each part. Individual voices stand out clearly in this setting. Especially noticeable to my ear were, at various moments, those of soprano and artistic director Jolie Greenleaf; countertenor Clifton Massey, formerly of Chanticleer; and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody, whom I heard in 2018 with New York Polyphony. But every member of TENET is a consummate vocalist.
The concert opened with “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” and it took my ears a few minutes to adjust to the slightly fuzzy sound of the organ mingled with the clear voices and the other instruments. Once that passed, the concert was an utter joy. After a splendid “Komm, Jesu, komm, mein Leib ist müde” the singers took a deserved break and conductor Jeffrey Grossman led the instrumentalists in selections from Telemann’s Ouverture Suite in G minor. Their performance brought out the music’s complexities so clearly and sensitively that, given the context, I forgot for a few minutes that this wasn’t Bach.
Bach’s “Jesu, meine Freude” showcased the singers’ individual skills as well as their wonderful polyphony. The sopranos and altos (the latter parts sung by the countertenors) were angelically featured alone in one section. In another, the ensemble made exquisite drama out of stabbing syllables separated by silence. Fiery aggression dominated the “Trotz dem alten Drachen” (“I defy the old dragon”) passage, subsiding to serenity as the speaker declares “Ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh” (I stand here and sing in secure peace”). The fugue-like section that follows sounded, well, divine. Countertenors shone as the speaker declared that despite bodily death, “der Geist aber ist das Leben” (“the spirit is life”). In a night scene, soprano and tenor voices evoked a moonlit darkness.
At times it was easy to forget that in these motets, unlike in Bach’s other choral music, the instruments double the voices. It’s a strange, focusing effect. At other times, while still doubling, the timbre of one or another instrument – oboe, bassoon, violin, even the double bass – caused its line to stand out. At these moments, rather than taking away from the vocal part, the instrumentalist’s skill added yet more dimension.
When we think of J.S. Bach’s choral music, we tend to think of his Cantatas and Masses. When we think of motets, we tend to think of earlier composers like Monteverdi. But the form survived robustly in Bach’s oeuvre, and his contributions to the canon of the motet are every bit as uniquely, miraculously Bach as anything else he wrote for the human voice. TENET knows this and so should we. Information and tickets for the ensemble’s 2022-23 concerts are available online.