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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 2, 2014 - Volume 43 Issue 01
Pacific MusicWorks presents Bach's mysterious, complex, and glorious cantatas
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Pacific MusicWorks presents Bach's mysterious, complex, and glorious cantatas

by Sharon Cumberland

PACIFIC MUSIC WORKS
BACH: CHRISTMAS ORATORIO I, III, VI
ST. JAMES CATHEDRAL
December 19


If you and I were living in Leipzig in 1734, when J.S. Bach wrote the 'Christmas Oratorio,' we would go to church every day on the 26th, 27th, and 28th, then again on New Year's Day, on the Sunday after New Year's, and on Epiphany - six major feasts. And if we were attending one of the two Lutheran churches where Bach was Kapellmeister, we would hear all six of the cantatas he composed - one for each celebration - consisting of forty-plus minutes of music for orchestra, soloists, and choir, performed at key moments during the service. In fact, we would be singing along during sections that Bach based on familiar hymns and scored in unison so that ordinary folks in the congregation could participate.

I've always wondered why the merchants of today - who brought Santa to the mall even before Thanksgiving this year - have never figured out that the Christmas holiday is even longer than they suppose. In spite of the commercial practice of celebrating Christmas from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after December 25th, the religious celebration of this high holy day begins on December 25th (Jesus' birthday) and extends over 'the Twelve Days of Christmas' to January 6th (Epiphany) when the three Magi arrived in Bethlehem. If Bach were around in 2014 he would certainly be surprised to see discarded Christmas trees lining the curbs on December 26th, just when the holiday is getting started. Fortunately for lovers of classical music, the commercial, foreshortened Christmas did not overtake the religious holiday until the mid-twentieth century, so we have a long tradition of sacred music that is performed during this season. (Yes! it's still the season!)

Handel's 'Messiah' is the most familiar of this genre, and many Christmas hymns, like 'Lo How a Rose e'er Blooming,' 'O Come All Ye Faithful,' 'Hark! the Herald Angels Sing' and 'Joy to the World' are not only Spotify and radio fare, but are still - as we churchgoers can attest - a major part of the Christmas services for which they were originally written. Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio' is one of the best examples of choral and orchestral works composed to be performed by church choirs during the whole arc of Christmas services. This history makes the St. James Cathedral on First Hill an ideal place to hear Bach's marvelous work, not only for the sense of being on holy ground, but also for its ornate beauty and reverberant acoustics. On December 19th, three sections of the 'Christmas Oratorio' were performed by the ideal consort - Pacific Musicworks led by artistic director Stephen Stubbs. For the six hundred or so attendees who packed three transepts of the cathedral - the orchestra and singers were in the fourth transept - Bach's mysterious, complex, and glorious cantatas were messages to the present from a past that understood Christmas as an ever-present and recurring miracle.

Since most of us don't go to church six times over Christmas, and since the entire oratorio is over four hours long, each conductor has to decide how many and which of the six cantatas should be performed. The most common approach is to offer cantatas I, II and III on one program and cantatas IV, V, and VI on a later program, if at all. Director Stubbs took a different and very musical approach to this issue by electing to perform cantatas I, III, and VI - all written in the upbeat and unifying key of D major - to showcase the beginning, middle and end of the whole work. Though we miss some of the most famous arias with this approach (especially the magical 'echo' soprano aria, 'Flösst, mein Heiland') Stubbs' choices offer distinctive opportunities for the excellent musicians and singers assembled through a collaboration with Early Music Vancouver, directed by former Pacific Musicworks executive director Matthew White. With a musical force of twenty-four instrumentalists, four soloists, and a choir of eight 'Vocal Ripienists' (ripieni in Italian means 'full' - i.e. the voices that 'fill out' the soloists) each performer has a chance to shine. Stubbs himself directed from behind an elevated harpsichord, so that audience members with a view could watch him conduct with his head, facial expressions, and very expressive hands as they left the keyboard between phrases.

As in Bach's passion oratorios, this work has an Evangelist (tenor Zach Finkelstein) who narrates the story in recitative, while the other three soloists (soprano Teresa Watkin, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, and bass-baritone Sumner Thompson) sing arias that express the emotional subtext of the events. For instance, when the Evangelist sings the familiar words 'she gave birth to a son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,' the bass aria then ponders the love that God has for his creation, to have come to earth as an impoverished child. Throughout the three cantatas the combined octet and soloists return to the familiar hymn churchgoers associate with Good Friday: 'O Sacred Head sore wounded,' used in this oratorio as the voice of the grateful Christian, wondering how to repay God for the great gift of salvation. In the final chorus, the hymn takes on a triumphal grandeur as 'Death, Devil, and hell are weakened once and for all' due to the birth of the Savior. For those of us used to the large choral forces brought to bear in other versions of this oratorio (full disclosure: I sang this oratorio in the Bach Festival choir in Orlando, Florida - 300 voices strong) it comes as a surprise that a dozen voices can generate the big sound that we associate with mega-church choirs and community choirs. Pacific Musicworks - like all serious early music groups - consists of scholars who study early music performance style as well as instrumentation, and who replicate as closely as possible the forces and conditions of Bach's own time. Bach complained about not having enough vocalists, but wrote his great oratorios for a group probably the very size of the group we heard on December 19th.

As an extra Christmas gift to the audience, the orchestra played Bach's 'Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major' - a six-part suite containing the ethereal 'Air on a G String' along with the lively dance sections of Gavottes, Boureé, and Gigue. Coming after the intermission and before the final cantata, this very familiar, very welcome interlude prepared the audience for the vocal finale, and gave us a chance to appreciate the virtuosity of each member of the orchestra, led by concert master Tekla Cunnngham. One can only imagine what it must have been like to go to church in Leipzig in 1734 and to hear Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio' for the very first time - but it must have been very much like Pacific Musicworks' marvelous concert. With such music, who wouldn't want to go to church six times in twelve days?

In March, 2015 Pacific Musicworks will present a program of American early music - 'Stephen Foster and his Contemporaries' - a concert that will foreground the unique American voice that developed in parallel with European musical traditions. Given the consistent excellence of this remarkable ensemble, it is a concert not to be missed.

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