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Thursday, 05 December 2013 00:35

Symphony Preview: A Very Bach Christmas + Video

Symphony Preview: A Very Bach Christmas stlsymphony.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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It has been a heavy month or so for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. On November 16th they performed Britten 's dramatic Peter Grimes at Powell, followed by a repeat performance at Carnegie Hall on November 22nd, Britten 's centenary. At the same time they were rehearsing the first three cantatas of Bach 's 1734-35 Christmas Oratorio for concerts this Friday and Saturday (December 6 and 7) with David Robertson and the orchestra.

The Symphony Chorus in full holiday mode

That's quite a schedule. Interviewed in the symphony program, chorus director Amy Kaiser notes that the Britten and the Bach "are diametrically opposed to one another. Peter Grimes had 130 singers, singing all that passion and drama in full voice. Then to go to a group of 80 singers, where the precision of every 16th note is critical. We would rehearse Britten from 7 to 9, take five minutes for a drink of water, and then Bach. It is more than a mental and physical shift—you need to shift your entire idea of sound and language." This weekend's concerts, in other words, will give you a feel for just how versatile these singers really are.

Hearing only the first three of the six cantatas that make up the Christmas Oratorio doesn't mean you're getting an incomplete work, by the way. Although the cantatas do have key signature relationships that mark them as part of a larger whole, they were intended to be performed separately, as part of church services on the first through third days of Christmas (December 25-27, 1734) at the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches in Leipzig, where Bach was the Cantor at the Thomasschule. So each one stands alone as a dramatic entity. Indeed, the first three parts were written and performed an entire year earlier than the last three.

The first cantata deals with the birth of Christ, the second with the adoration of the shepherds, and the third with the circumcision and naming of Christ. The first and third are more dramatic while the second, as befits its subject matter, is more pastoral. For details on the cantatas, along with some solid musical analysis, I refer you to Paul Schiavo's excellent notes in the program.

Interestingly enough, the Christmas Oratorio cantatas almost weren't written at all—or at least, not at Leipzig. Bach was dissatisfied with the way his duties as a teacher detracted from his work as a composer, as well as with the way some of his compositions were received. The high drama of his St. Matthew Passion, in particular, was apparently met with bewilderment. By October of 1730, things had deteriorated to the point where Bach was seriously seeking another job. "Unfortunately," he wrote to his friend Georg Erdmann, "I have discovered that (1) this situation is not as good as it was represented to be, (2) various accidentia relative to my station have been withdrawn, (3) living is expensive, and (4) my masters are strange folk with very little care for music in them." He went on to complain of "constant annoyance, jealousy, and persecution" and asked Erdmann if he might know of opening in Danzig.

J. M. Gesner, our pal

Fortunately for Western music, most of these issues were cleared up with the appointment of a new rector (and therefore Bach's boss) at the Thomasschule, Johann Matthias Gesner. Gesner had met and befriended Bach when Gesner was the librarian and vice-principal at Weimar. He appreciated Bach's genius and supported his work as a composer in ways that his predecessor had not. As a result, we got not only the Christmas Oratorio but also—nearly 10 years later—the titanic B Minor Mass as well. We owe Mr. Gesner a lot, it seems.

When you see the concerts this weekend, note the way the strings are arranged. First violins will be on David Robertson's left, second violins on the right, and cellos and violas in the center. The double basses will be behind the cellos. That will enable some interesting antiphonal effects that would be less clear if the violins were all on one side, as is often the case with later music.

Baroque oboe d'amore

You'll also get to her the oboe d'amore in action. It's slightly larger and has a somewhat richer tone than the regular oboe, with a range in between that of the oboe and the even darker-sounding cor anglais (English horn), with which it shares a characteristic pear-shaped bell. The oboe d'amore was relatively new in Bach's time (it was invented in 1717 or thereabouts) and Bach used it often. In this weekend's concerts Cally Banham and Phil Ross will be playing the oboe d'amore, with Barbara Orland and Michelle Duskey doubling on regular oboe and English horn.

To recap: Parts 1 through 3 of the Bach Christmas Cantata will be performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under David Robertson this Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, at 8 PM at Powell Hall. The vocal soloists are Dominique Labelle, soprano; Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Stephen Powell, baritone.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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