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Sunday, 08 December 2013 14:40

Concert review: Big band Baroque Bach with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Powell Hall Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey katelindsey.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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It was cold and snowy outside Powell Hall this weekend, but inside it was all warmth and light as David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus unwrapped an early Christmas present in the form of the first three cantatas from Bach's "Christmas Oratorio."

This was Big Band Bach, with an 80-voice chorus, 40-piece (more or less) orchestra, and positive organ.  But the big sound came with no lack of attention to musical detail on the part of Mr. Robertson and his soloists.  Tempi were crisp and the overall approach was very idiomatically Baroque, the size of the forces involved not withstanding. Mr. Robertson did a lovely job of bringing out the dance element that seems to be present in much of this music (most of which Bach recycled from earlier secular cantatas) and the soloists were, for the most part, thoroughly connected with the text and the audience.

The six cantatas that make up the "Christmas Oratorio" date from Bach's years in Leipzig, where he was the Cantor at the Thomasschule and expected, in addition to his teaching duties and other responsibilities, to produce music for both the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches. The first three cantatas were written for services on the first three days of Christmas in 1734, December 25-27 (one per day), and the last three for January 1, 2, and 6 in 1735. Grouping them together under the "Christmas Oratorio" title didn't happen until after Bach's death.

Even so, the printed libretto (as Uri Golomb notes in an article at bach-cantatas.com http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/Bach-Oratorios-Golomb.pdf) identifies the six cantatas as part of a single story, a connection emphasized as well by key signature relationships among the individual parts. That unity was heightened by Mr. Robertson's decision to perform the first two cantatas without pause. It really did feel like a single, integrated work.

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. All of them are clearly dramatic as well as devotional pieces, with both soloists and the chorus sometimes taking on roles in the story of Christ's birth. In the third cantata, for example, the chorus becomes the shepherds planning their trip to Jerusalem, while the second cantata features an extended lullaby for the infant Jesus by the alto soloist in the role of Mary.

Mezzo Kate Lindsey (sounding quite comfortable in the alto role) and tenor Nicholas Phan seemed to be the most in tune with the theatrical aspects of the music and text. Ms. Lindsey, for example, was clearly and effectively engaged with both the text and her audience in "Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh" (that cradle song in the second cantata), while Mr. Phan's Evangelist was clearly more than just a disinterested narrator.

The soprano role is much smaller than that of the alto, but Dominique Labelle made a strong impression in her duets with baritone Stephen Powell (singing the bass role). For his part Mr. Powell, while musically impeccable, rarely looked up from his score to connect with the audience.

Amy Kaiser's choristers displayed their usual high standard of musicianship as well. The beginnings and ending of phrases were clear and precise and the overall sound nicely balanced. Physically separating the different voice types more might have clarified Bach's counterpoint a bit, but that's a minor quibble.

There were plenty of opportunities for individual members of the band to take center stage over the course of these tree cantatas, and all of them did so in fine fashion. The featured musicians included Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik, timpanist Thomas Stubbs, Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo, Principal Flute Mark Sparks, and the entire high double reed section: Barbara Orland and Michelle Duskey on oboe and English Horn and Cally Banham and Phil Ross on one of Bach's favorite instruments, the oboe d'amore. Concertmaster David Halen gave us a beautiful duet with Ms. Lindsey in "Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder" from the third cantata. Mr. Robertson had featured performers stand when their instruments were highlighted, which brought them into focus nicely.

Given the intended role of this music as part of the services on the first through third days of Christmas, the general tone is appropriately celebratory and reverent.  Even if you're not all that Christian (which I am not), Bach's musical invention is unfailingly engaging, especially when performed with such total commitment.

Holiday programs continue at the symphony, including "Too Hot to Handel: a Gospel Messiah" with the IN UNISON® Chorus, the annual "Holiday Celebration" concerts (complete with a visit from Santa), and the big New Year's Eve gala. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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