It’s a bright Saturday morning, the scent of summer is in the air, and in her South Surrey townhouse Paula Kremer is thinking of… Well, she’s thinking of death. But she’s also thinking of life, and light, and most of all she’s thinking about Kantatefeier, the program she’s assembled to mark the 60th anniversary of the Vancouver Cantata Singers, the ensemble she’s helmed since 2013.
It is not, she admits, a particularly rah-rah confection. Musical scholars suggest, for instance, that opening number “Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf ”, by Johann Christoph Bach, was sung at Johann Sebastian Bach’s funeral, in 1750. And J.C.’s sober message will be echoed in J.S.’s concluding piece, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, although in that work, which posits Jesus as “the bridegroom of the soul”, there is an underpinning sensuality and joy.
“So much of this music, even though it’s almost funeral music, could be done at Christmastime as well,” Kremer tells the Straight. “It’s just so interesting!”
She explains that the Bachs’ music—which was intended to be performed in a liturgical context, whether funereal or not—is largely about the radiant awakening believers can expect in heaven. “So how do I relate that to someone who isn’t Christian, or who doesn’t have that belief?” she asks. “Well, one thing that unites us all is that it’s a given that we all are going to die. So that is, right there, something that unifies all of us on this Earth.”
We should probably specify that Kremer doesn’t sound particularly downcast about any of this. In fact, she’s bubbling with so much enthusiasm for her choir and its music that trying to explain it, she says, leaves her almost “tongue-tied”. Still, she makes the point that the deep feeling in the Bachs’ music encompasses vernal excitement as well as autumnal rumination, “wecke uns auf” and “wachet auf” both translating, more or less, as “Wake up!” And in that spirit of the fresh and new, Kremer decided to bolster the Cantata Singers’ program by commissioning a piece, Io, Io, from Vancouver Symphony Orchestra composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock.
“It’s really a beautiful connection,” she explains. “I met with Jocelyn a year ago and said that we would love to have her write a celebratory piece for us—for the Vancouver Cantata Singers, as we celebrate our 60th—to have on the last program of the year. But here’s the sticker: it’s all Bach, and Jocelyn doesn’t write, obviously, in Bach’s choral style. So how could we fit it into the program design? I love designing programs that tell a story or have thematic threads, so it isn’t just a program of beautiful, beautiful music to listen to.”
Morlock’s answer was to quote Philipp Nicolai’s text for “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”. “It’s ‘No eye has ever seen/no ear has ever heard/such joy,’ ” Kremer says. “And on behalf of the Cantata Singers, I would say that speaks to our joy that we’ve made it to 60 years, and that we’re singing together, and that we’re able to do this concert.”
The Vancouver Cantata Singers present Kantatefeier! A Cantata Celebration at Christ Church Cathedral on Saturday (May 12).