Bach Collegium San Diego Previews Its Impressive Concert for Leipzig’s Bach Festival in June

Over its 21 seasons, the Bach Collegium San Diego has performed the music of nearly every great 17th and 18th-century European composer, as well as numerous lesser-known compatriots. And the ensemble’s upcoming season, announced at Friday’s Bound for BachFest! concert presented at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma, will branch out to include music by Beethoven and Poulenc!

Ruben Valenzuela [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

But when Artistic Director Ruben Valenzuela is conducting his musicians in works by their namesake J. S. Bach, I sense an electricity in that music making unlike anything else the Bach Collegium San Diego performs. As the Bach Collegium’s 22-member period orchestra launched into the opening chorus of Bach’s 1724 Advent cantata Nun komm der heiden Heiland, BWV 62, a sonic tidal wave engulfed the church. The crisp, energetic attacks of the orchestra’s strings were immediately matched by the bright but immaculately focused voices of the 15 chorus members as they followed Valenzuela’s brisk, invigorating tempo. On the podium Valenzuela not only conducted the singers and instrumentalists, he added the harpsichord continuo in the arias and recitatives, adding to the skilled continuo foundation of Michael Sponseller on the chamber organ, cellist Alex Greenbaum, and bassist Shanon Zusman.

In this cantata, BWV 62, based on a traditional Lutheran Advent chorale that Bach had already made into a sacred cantata a decade earlier and on which he composed several of his greatest organ chorale preludes, the chorus does not return until the end of the cantata. But the vigor of the opening choral fantasia set the mood of the cantata, and for that matter of the entire evening’s bracing performance.

Arias by tenor Aaron Sheehan and bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton continued to expand this cantata’s message of the qualities of the expected Savior, depicted in the text as an athletic hero, more Greek god than the itinerant preacher of the New Testament Gospels. Sheehan adroitly navigated the exuberant figuration of his aria, “Bewundert, o Menschen,” and the color of his voice in its uppermost range proved indeed delectable. When Valenzuela conducts this work in June at the Leipzig Bach Festival, I suggest he might be careful to hold the orchestra back and let the tenor dominate this amazing aria.

In the bass aria “Streite, siege, starker Held!” (“Struggle, conquer, powerful hero”), Bach illustrates this text with a clever “battle” between the assertive bass vocal solo and the obstreperous instrumental bass line that is intently doubled throughout the orchestra. Tipton’s ample, rugged bass-baritone, however, did not struggle in the slightest to dominate this amusingly rowdy Baroque aria.

A pious duet elegantly delivered by soprano Clara Rottsolk and countertenor Jay Carter, “Wir ehren diese Herrlichkeit,” offered the congregation’s dignified thanks for the revelation of the awaited Savior.

The Bach Collegium’s second chorale cantata of the evening, Christum wir sollen loben schon, BWV 121, celebrates the Second Day of Christmas on the liturgical calendar, and, like the Advent cantata BWV 62, it opens with a rousing chorus. Because the chorale on which this cantata is based is set in a minor mode, this chorus lacks that bursting enthusiasm of, say, the opening chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, composed a decade after BWV 121. But this chorus expresses a muted jubilation that sets up an exuberant tenor aria filled with the wonder of the Incarnation. In this powerful aria, “O du von Gott erhönte Kreatur,” Sheehan’s nimble display of vivid fioriture was matched by an agile oboe descant supplied with confident grace by Stephen Bard.

Theological fine points delineated in lengthy recitatives by the soprano and alto soloists were offered with persuasive vocal declamation by Clara Rottsolk and Jay Carter, and bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton triumphed in his impassioned aria “Johannis freudenvolles Springen” (“John’s joyful leaps”), a text launched by a detail from a verse recorded in the Gospel of Luke about the Virgin Mary’s visit with Elizabeth when the women were pregnant.

Valenzuela saved the program’s most festive cantata, Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 91, for the finale. Bach wrote BWV 91 (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ) as the main music for the celebration of Christmas Day, 1724, and he calls for a colorful orchestra capped by brass and timpani, the musical signs of royalty. Figuratively pulling out all the stops, Valenzuela showed the Bach Collegium’s amazing ability to deliver an exhilarating, radiant ensemble from a modest number of superbly trained singers and instrumentalists.

In addition to the excellent aria soloists heard in the first two cantatas, in BWV 91 we heard Enrico Lagasca’s stentorian bass baritone declaim the recitative “O Christenheit!” with awe-inspiring command, as well as a soaring duet, “Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt,” between soprano Clara Rottsolk and mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney. The duet’s text references angel choirs, and these two persuasive vocalists could not have sounded more angelic!

To complement these three J. S. Bach cantatas, Valenzuela chose several short German-language motets, including a recently discovered J. S. Bach motet “Ich lasse dich nicht,” BWV Anh. 159, and a pair of motets by Johann Hermann Schein, one of J.S. Bach’s early 17th-century predecessors at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. We also heard motets by a distant J. S. Bach relative, Johann Michael Bach, and by Bach’s youngest son Johann Christian Bach whose “Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener,” proved a charming setting of the Magnificat in German composed in a sprightly style galant mode.

This concert by the Bach Collegium San Diego was presented on May 3, 2024, at All Souls’ Episcopal Church, Point Loma. It was repeated on May 4, 2024, at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, La Jolla.


  1. Beula Umlaut on May 6, 2024 at 4:43 pm

    I find it odd that you left out mention of continuo player John Lenti on theorbo, who played an exceptionally key factor in the show from beginning to end…

    • Ken Herman on May 6, 2024 at 10:26 pm

      Perhaps it was because he was not listed on the Musicians page of the Bach Collegium San Diego program.

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