Opus Colorado

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Yet another world-class performance!

The concert going public is truly indebted to Cynthia Katsarelis and Timothy Krueger (Which one do I name first?) for having the imagination and the artistic skill and the organizations – St. Martin’s Chamber Choir and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra – to program and perform J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. In the program notes, they state that it is been at least 10 years, and perhaps longer, since this work has been performed in the Denver Metro area. I think it is been much longer. In fact this magnificent Oratorio does not seem to be performed much at all in the United States. I know it has been at least forty years since I have heard it performed.

I was unable to hear the performance Friday evening in Denver, so I drove to Boulder Saturday evening to hear their performance, which was done at the First United Methodist Church on Spruce Street. As the program notes explain, this work is divided into six sections which were intended to be performed on the six major feast days over a thirteen day period from December 25th through January 6th. The six sections of this oratorio are really cantatas, and thus form a cycle of cantatas.

A cantata is a composition that uses soloists and chorus, and, depending upon the facilities available to the composer at the time, it can also use an orchestra or an organ. There are two kinds of cantatas. Almost all of Bach’s cantatas were liturgical and intended to be sung at specific church services during the Lutheran year. These are known as cantata da chiesa. There are also secular cantatas. Bach wrote two well-known secular cantatas: the Coffee Cantata and the Hunting Cantata. Secular cantatas are known as cantata da camera, or chamber cantata.

It was a common practice for Bach to re-use music from past compositions – in other words, self-plagiarism – and the Christmas Oratorio is no exception. He uses themes from three previous cantatas as well as his lost work, the St. Mark Passion (and I point out that the full name of this work, and that of any Passion that Bach wrote is “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ Upon the Cross According to St. Mark”). However, as is also usual in Bach, the adaptation of these themes is so skillful that many of the themes go unrecognized, and certainly it does not cause any kind of disturbance.

At Saturday night’s performance, an intermission was placed between the first three sections in the last three, with Maestra Katsarelis conducting the first half of the oratorio, and the Maestro Timothy Krueger conducting the second half. As you might imagine, the six sections tell the complete Christmas story beginning with the birth of Jesus, and ending with the Epiphany.

This entire performance was bathed in joy and remarkable detail work from the musicians and both conductors. I thought that in the opening four or five measures the timpani was a little too loud because it covered everything. But after those opening measures, he seemed to get his enthusiasm under control. One of the most important aspects of this entire performance was that it was so well done that it was exultant where it should have been exultant, and it was introspective without being maudlin.

The musicians performed with such great care, attention, warmth, and belief in what they were doing, that this work was revealed as a very personal statement by J.S. Bach. How often do we hear a program where that intangible, yet identifiable aesthetic, is manifest?

Amanda Balestrieri, soprano; Marjorie Bunday, mezzo; Daniel Hutchings, tenor (in the role of Evangelist); Jacob Sentgeorge, tenor; and Robert W. Tudor, bass, were all quite remarkable and excellent. I was struck by the balance of the singers with the orchestra. That can sometimes be a very difficult thing to bring off, especially when one does not get a chance to perform often in the hall. Nonetheless, performance experience pays off quite nicely, and it was clear that the soloists had an abundance of that. Yes, of course, they were singing arias and recitatives (An aria is a vocal solo where the soloist must sing to the rhythm that the composer has written. A recitative is a vocal solo wherein the soloist is governed only by the rhythm of the prose text, with occasional chords from the orchestra or organ, as the case may be, to help the soloists stay on pitch, and provide the audience with a sense of tonality), but they had a sense of musicianship that is sometimes rare. Using a broad brush, realize that there are some singers who seem motivated by the desire to be the most important person on stage. In Bach, there are moments when this is perfectly proper; however, there are times when it is not. Why? Because Bach wrote counterpoint, and he often treats the voice as a member of the contrapuntal line. All of these soloists had the musicianship to realize when to be an “instrument,” and when to be a soloist.

Not only was the balance with the acoustics of the church excellent, but the balance between the musicians in the orchestra and choir and the soloists was well-nigh perfect. The result of this balance made it possible to hear some of the harmonic changes that Bach used in this oratorio. Why is that important? Because there were deceptive resolutions of the harmony that I have never heard in the music of Bach. In the Chorale Nr. 10 of Part III, I heard an augmented sixth chord, known among musicians as a German V 6-5 chord. This chord was not used freely until the 1820’s or so. I apologize for being so technical, but the V is a Roman numeral indicating that the chord is built upon the 5th degree of the scale (do you young people see why it is important to learn scales?); however, in the case of the V 6-5 chord, the root, or base (foundation) of the chord is lowered by a half step. That, in turn, governs how it can resolve or go to the next chord. I have never heard this chord used in Bach. I am sure that if he used it in this Oratorio, he must have used it in other compositions as well, but I must say that it added to the aura that his work is a very personal statement. I certainly have not read of any of Bach’s contemporaries criticizing him for using such harmonies, which would have been considered “avante garde,” in the same way that Beethoven was ridiculed for his advanced rhythms in his Symphony Nr. 7, or his addition of the trombone in his compositions. As I say, I have not heard the Christmas Oratorio for many years, so I sat in the audience relishing all of the “new” sounds.

I would also like to point out that in the Recitative Nr. 9 of the Part II, the cello had a flowing triplet pattern that was reminiscent (but only that) of a Barcarolle rhythm. It gave a very distinct swaying motion that was underscored by the wonderful bass solo.

The orchestra musicians were superb. The woodwinds, Michelle Stanley, Olga Shylayeva, Monica Hanulik, Gina Johnson, Jason Lichtenwalter, and Max Soto were delightful. The trumpets – Bruce Barrie, Andrew Bishop, and Steven Marx – gave me the impression that they had played nothing but Bach for their entire lives. Ditto the French horns – Fritz Foss and Michael Yopp –  whose trills in Part VI were astounding. That has to be hard to do on an instrument with such a tiny mouth piece. I would also like to point out the seemingly easy continuo part performed by Frank Nowell was not so “easy,” but it was done with great aplomb.

In Part IV, there is an “Echo” aria for the soprano soloist and the lead soprano in the choir. Both Amanda Balestrieri and the lead soprano in the choir, who was Cindy Henning, were incredible in their grace, and while one could recognize its seriousness in relation to the Oratorio, it was done in such a way as to emphasize that Bach must have been very pleased with his idea, and continually thinking, “Yes, this idea will work.” If you think that my thoughts on this sound corny, or “unscholarly,” you should have heard this concert.

As I drove home, there were two thoughts that stood out in my mind. One, how fortunate we in the metro area are to have these two musicians, Timothy Krueger and Cynthia Katsarelis, who are so capable of pulling together so many outstanding  colleagues and, two, the ability of all of these musicians involved to shed new light on Bach, and expose the beauty of one of his rarely performed compositions.