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REVIEW: James Bagwell and company deliver stunning Magnificat performances May 11 at First Congregational Church

You expect to hear singing this good at Tanglewood or the Metropolitan Opera.

Great Barrington — James Bagwell is known as a preparer of choruses for a long list of major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has been working with the Berkshire Bach Society since 2003, last conducting J.S. Bach’s Magnificat for them in 2005. A few rehearsals with Mr. Bagwell would help you understand the extent of his skills. But if you were present at First Congregational Church on Saturday, May 11, 2024, when he conducted two settings of the Magnificat, then you heard the extent of his skills with your own ears. You would have recognized it simply as beauty, and that is all you need to know.

That is not to say there was no luck involved.

No doubt, the singers Mr. Bagwell was privileged to work with for this performance made him feel lucky, indeed. He could have done a decent job with other singers, but this group of 15 vocalists is a dream team that any conductor would feel lucky to work with: sopranos Vianca Alejandra, Rachel Doering Jackson, Julie Liston Johnson, Adrienne Lotto, and Katherine Cecilia Peck; altos Jennifer Borghi, Teresa Buchholz, Alison Gish, and Devony Smith; tenors Daniel Casellanos, Sean Fallen, and Nicholas Prior; basses Bert K. Johnson, Andrew Jurden, and Nate Mattingly—all must have made everyone in the room thank their lucky stars, early on, for having had the wherewithal to purchase tickets to this event. Because these vocalists were, throughout both Magnificat settings, spot on with their intonation, rhythmic ensemble, and enunciation of Latin texts. But most impressive of all was their pitch accuracy on the most tortuous solo passages—parts that have led many fine singers to their doom. For example, tenor Sean Fallen’s performance on “Quia respexit” was breathtaking in its precision. Alto Allison Gish gave a performance of “Suscepit Israel” that was deeply satisfying if only because her voice projects so well throughout its range, with a powerful lower register that might remind you of Stephanie Blythe. But all of the solo performances on Saturday were strong without exception.

The instrumentalists on May 11 were:

  • Violins: Laura Hamilton, Bruna Myftaraj
  • Viola: Ronald Gorevic
  • Cello: Laura Melnicoff
  • Double bass: Peter Weitzner
  • Flutes: Judith Mendenhall, Alison Hale
  • Oboes: Charles S. Huang, Kirsten Lipkens
  • Bassoon: Oleksiy Zakharov
  • Trumpets: Brandon Bergeron, Changhyun Cha, Samuel Jones
  • Horns: Stephan Williams, Jessica Cunningham
  • Timpani: Benjamin Harms
  • Organ: Renée Anne Louprette

Most of these players are based in New York City. Many are educators at major universities or conservatories; some have international careers; and quite a few appeared on the 11th with Berkshire Bach for the first time, which is a tantalizing fact when you consider the band Berkshire Bach Artistic Director Gene Drucker will be putting together for the New Year’s Brandenburg Concerto performances. And they certainly must have given Mr. Bagwell an additional reason to feel lucky on May 11.

Baroque composers, including J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, tended to write heavily decorated vocal parts that are beautiful only when performed with a high degree of precision. But that is difficult to achieve, even with singers of this caliber, unless you also have a conductor of Mr. Bagwell’s caliber.

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