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The lighter side of Bach

As a warmup for the holiday season, the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers are presenting a collection of songs celebrating the ups, downs and foibles of such human passions as romance, coffee and tobacco — and to demonstrate that J.S. Bach and his fellows of the Baroque era did something other than compose church music.

At 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 22, at Noble Coffee, 281 Fourth St., Ashland, a small ensemble will sing works of Bach, Henry Purcell and Tobias Hume, accompanied by period flute and harpsichord music. The intimate concert features free champagne and, for purchase, Noble's coffee and desserts.

Bach's "Coffee Cantata," sung by Ellie Murray and Don Matthews, is a miniature comic opera celebrating a young lady's addiction to the then-new fad of coffee.

Her father threatens to take away all her privileges, including meals, clothes and eventually her right to a husband. She responds that she will give up coffee if she can just have a lover, then tells her suitors they must indulge her caffeine addiction. Eventually, all sing that coffee is natural and good for people.

It premiered about 1732 at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig, says SORS director Paul French, and includes the line, "If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.

"People don't know that Bach wrote secular music," French says. "It's funny. They don't think of Bach as funny, but he was."

Tobacco, another pleasure whose dangers were scarcely known at the time, is celebrated in "Tobacco is Like Love," an anonymous verse put to music by Hume in 1605. It proclaims how both tobacco and love make men scorn all fears, sail from shore to shore, become poor and get set on their ears.

A late 17th-century comic Purcell song "What Can We Poor Females Do?" proclaims that fate affords no other way for women against "pressing, teasing lovers" than to deny, comply, relent or consent, but all options "alike, our hopes betray."

In a more lofty vein, a Purcell song, "Sound the Trumpet," a duet from 1687, was a laudatory welcoming song for King James II.

Shelly Cox will solo with Purcell's "Music for a While," composed in 1692 and based on the play "Oedipus," by John Dryden, using his line, "Music for a while shall all your cares beguile."

The "Magnificat" or "Mary's Song," by Bach, celebrating the Virgin's conception of Jesus will be sung by Chris Bingham and Lindsay Panero.

Brett Aakre will sing the Bach aria, "Bist du bei mir" or "Sleep Now." It asks the beloved to be at his side and he will go serenely to his death.

Jodi French will play the French harpsichord and Luna Bitzer will play a Baroque flute.

"It's meant to be fun, not formal, that's the main thing," says French. "Bach performed in coffee shops. This recreates the casual concert of one of the greatest composers of all time, with a diverse sampling of inspired music."

SORS marketing director Bonnie Oliver called the concert "a perfect little bon-bon at the beginning of the holiday season — and it shows Bach's light side."

Tickets for the concert are $35 and come with champagne. Available for purchase are the desserts and coffees of Noble Coffee. For tickets, see www.repsingers.org, call 552-0900 or send checks to SORS Tickets, PO Box 1091, Ashland OR 97520.

SORS's holiday concert is "Gloria!" It features new and traditional works, including the Gloria from Bach's B minor Mass. It's at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 19, at Medford Congregational United Church of Christ.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

The Southern Oregon Repertory Singers are led by conductor Paul French. Members of the ensemble will perform works by Bach, Henry Purcell and Tobias Hume - Photo courtesy of SORS