Music of the Baroque marks season with memorable performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”

Mon Dec 06, 2010 at 6:15 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Johann Sebastian Bach

The thing about ambitious artistic gambles is that when a music organization is courageous enough to take one, more often than not, it pays off.

Music of the Baroque is clearly proving that this season. At a time when most classical organizations are in retreat, the organization is actually expanding in its 40th anniversary season. And while this season’s lineup offers an array of populist crowd-pleasers (Messiah, Brandenburgs, Mozart’s final symphonies), MOB is also taking a chance by tackling Bach’s complete Christmas Oratorio, which was presented complete Sunday night at First United Methodist Church in Evanston.

Of Bach’s major choral masterworks, the Christmas Oratorio is the least often presented as much for reasons of length as resources and the myriad challenges to the conductor, soloists, chorus and orchestra.

The Christmas Oratorio is actually not an oratorio at all, but a collection of six separate cantatas written by Bach for the major feast days of the Christmas season. Unlike Handel’s Messiah, the work collectively doesn’t give us a linear dramatic narrative of the Nativity story, as much as a thoughtful meditation on Jesus and the Christmas season’s broader implications interstiching apt Biblical verses with numerous sections of religious praise in Bach’s devotional style.

What the Christmas Oratorio does offer is three hours of some of Bach’s most magnificent music, an unceasing flow of richly varied sections, jubilant and introspective, deployed among four soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Music of the Baroque deserves plaudits for mounting this difficult work, and Sunday night’s performance was an unqualified success across the board. With a stellar quartet of soloists, magnificent choral singing and orchestral playing, and faultless direction by Jane Glover, this Christmas Oratorio is not only Music of the Baroque’s finest achievement of the year but one of the most memorable concert events of 2010.

Jane Glover

In her belated first season appearance after an emergency appendectomy in September, Glover looked hale and healthy, leading her forces in even more animated and vigorous fashion than usual.

Her fast speeds for the choruses challenged the singers but never sounded breathless, richly conveying the rejoicing of the text. The care and preparation for for these performances were clearly manifest in the natural flow and transitions between solos, recitatives and choruses throughout the three hours.

Paul Agnew led the quartet, with his clear, strong tenor providing apt dignity to the Evangelist’s recitatives as well as displaying striking agility in the coloratura roulades of his arias.

Sanford Sylvan was less flexible in the quicker passages but his warm baritone conveyed the glowing humanity of the text. Lisa Saffer brought a bright soprano and dramatic point to her opportunities and blended well with Sylvan in their duetted sections.

While the other three artists are well known and experienced Baroque stylists, Jennifer Rivera proved a real discovery. The young mezzo has a lovely, full yet flexible voice, and her singing blended elegance with expressive detailing, showing a fine Baroque style.

That new chorus director William Jon Gray has made quick strides was clear from the opening bars. The gifted ensemble delivered their finest choral singing of the last two seasons, imposingly conveying the spiritual jubilation, bringing eloquence to the more interior passages and handling the German text with great clarity and pinpoint articulation.

One could go a lifetime without hearing the kind of gleaming virtuosic trumpet playing served up by MOB stalwarts Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer over three very challenging hours.  The rest of the orchestra was on the same level with plaudits especially to Robert Waters’ obbligato violin playing, the oboe/oboe d’amore work of Robert Morgan and Peggy Michel and the stylish continuo of cellist Barbara Haffner, organist David Schrader and harpsichordist Jason Moy.

There is just one more performance Tuesday night at the Harris Theater and if you only attend one Christmas concert this season, this is one not to miss.

Music of the Baroque performs Bach’s Christmas Oratorio 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater.; 312-551-1414.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Music of the Baroque marks season with memorable performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio””

  1. Posted Dec 07, 2010 at 7:17 pm by Carol Hopwood

    You left out praises for the awesome bassoon playing of Bill Buchman of the CSO. He was used as the main continuo instrumentalist instead of the usual cello in several movements. It added a festive note when paired with the oboes.

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