Arts & Events

New: Nola Richardson Excels in Bach’s Cantatas

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday February 18, 2019 - 04:00:00 PM

Over the weekend of February 15-18, American Bach Soloists presented a program of Favorite Bach Cantatas featuring soprano Nola Richardson. At the Saturday evening concert I attended at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, Nola Richardson even did double-duty, singing all the soprano parts and some of the tenor parts as well. In this concert’s second half, tenor Zachary Wilder had to withdraw due to laryngitis, so Nola Richardson, who greeted me before the concert by saying “I’m moonlighting tonight because our tenor is indisposed,” was pressed into service to perform some of the tenor’s arias and recitatives as well as her own soprano parts.  

As could be expected, Nola Richardson excelled in whatever she sang! This young soprano has everything: a crystalline tone, impeccable diction, exquisite musicianship, and an engaging stage-presence. Though petite in stature, Nola Richardson packs plenty of power; and her clear, bright soprano projected as if effortlessly all the way to the balcony seat where I sat.  

Born in Australia, Nola Richardson spent much of her youth in the Baltimore, Maryland, area, where she has frequently returned to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. Particularly noted for her interpretive skills in the Baroque repertoire, Nola Richardson was a 2016 First Prize winner in the Bethlehem Bach Competition. She also won the Third Prize and Audience Favorite award in the 2016 Handel Aria Competition in Madison, Wisconsin. Performing locally with American Bach Soloists, Nola Richardson received rave reviews (from me but from others as well) for her singing in the role of Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea in 2015, a program of French Baroque music in 2017, and in Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione also in 2017.  

Opening the current American Bach Soloists program was the Bach cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78. This cantata is most famous for its lovely first aria for soprano, alto, and instrumental basso continuo. (Our local KPFA radio station often played this aria in a famous recording.) Especially memorable is the oft-repeated refrain, “O Jesu, o Meister, zu helfen zu dir?To you, Oh Master, we seek help”, sung here by Nola Richardson and countertenor Jay Carter. Accompanied here by Corey Jamason on keyboard, William Skeen on violoncello, and Steven Lehning on violone, the two singers gracefully intertwined their vocals in this endearing aria, which, predictably, was a highlight of the concert.  

Next on the program was the cantata, Wachet auf/Wake up, BWV 140. In this cantata, Bach uses the conceit of a wedding procession to suggest the spiritual marriage of Jesus Christ as bridegroom and the soul of a Christian believer as the bride. The music here is both sensual and transcendently spiritual. In the duet, “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil/ When do you come, my Savior?”, eloquently performed here by Nola Richardson and baritone Tyler Duncan, there is a longing motive heard in violino piccolo beautifully played here by Elizabeth Blumenstock. This love duet is followed by the extremely well-known Chorale for tenor, strings and basso continuo, “Zion hört die Wächter singen/Zion hears the watchman singing.” Later in this cantata comes a second love duet, again for soprano and baritone. In this duet, oboist Debra Nagy has an extended solo accompaniment that signals the happy union of the spiritual lovers, for which at the end of this cantata she received a well-deserved round of applause. 

After intermission, American Bach Soloists founder and conductor Jeffrey Thomas led his charges in two more well-known Bach cantatas: Meine Seel erhebt den Herren/My soul magnifies the Lord, BWV 10, and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott/A mightly fortress is our God.” In the first of these cantatas, the main attraction is the first aria, where the soprano, here Nola Richardson, has a great deal of coloratura to express how much the penitent owes to the Lord. Following this aria, Nola Richardson sang the tenor’s recitative for the ailing Zachary Wilder; and I must say that Nola Richardson sounded brilliant in this music, which, of course, she had not expected to sing prior to the performance. Her coloratura in this recitative was brilliantly performed. In the ensuing duets for alto and tenor, the alto role was nobly performed by Jay Carter, and the tenor role was ably sung by American Bach Chorus tenor David Kurtenbach. Next came a recitative for tenor that here was sung gorgeously by Nola Richardson, providing yet another highlight to this concert.  

The final work on the program was Bach’s cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott/A mighty fortress is our God,” BWV 80. Nola Richardson sang the recitative “So stehe denn bei Christ/So stand firm by Christ. In this cantata, the oboe da caccia is featured as is the violoncello. The former was performed by Priscilla Herreid, and the latter by William Skeen. The duet prior to the final Chorale was ably sung by countertenor Jay Carter and tenor David Kurtenbach. All told, this was a gorgeous concert of J,S. Bach’s most illustrious cantatas, beautifully sung by Nola Richardson and her vocal colleagues. But make no mistake about it, this wonderful program was highlighted, one might even say, dominated, by the extraordinary talent and stage-presence of soprano Nola Richardson. Let us hope that she returns often and as soon as possible to our Bay Area concert halls!