The 2011 Christmas Concerts have been billed as “Bach, with a French twist,” which I hope is an intriguing notion for members of our audience (it certainly is for the singers!). Each year, The Choir offers what has become, for many, a holiday tradition: concerts of Bach’s festive music for Advent and Christmas, concluding with carols (and always ending with Silent Night, sung in German and English, crowned with Gerre Hancock’s ravishing descant for sopranos on the last verse). Often, the music of other composers is interposed in this mix; in recent years, audiences have been treated to Mendelssohn Christmas motets, Schütz’s Christmas History, cantatas by Buxtehude, and C.P.E. Bach’s delightful setting of the Magnificat. This year, we’ll be visiting neighboring France, for pieces that look back to Bach’s time, and that look beyond Bach to the twentieth century. Our French voyage will be bookended by two Bach classics, Cantata No. 40, and the third cantata of the Christmas Oratorio.
It’s a bit of programming serendipity that, this fall, Bach Choir audiences will have heard two pieces written for the Second Day of Christmas, on which German Lutherans of Bach’s time would have commemorated the feast day of the martyr, St. Stephen. At the October Bach at Noon, our audience heard Bach’s Cantata No. 57, for the first time in Bethlehem, lovingly sung by Rosa Lamoreaux and Bill Sharp. You may read my thoughts about that cantata here. It’s quite a bit more inward and intimate than its sibling, which we’ll be hearing at the Christmas Concerts.
Cantata No. 40 begins with delightful horn fanfares, which dialog with playful string responses. The parts for horns are bravura in nature – our program annotator, the esteemed Dr. Robin Leaver, notes that Cantata No. 40 marks the first time Bach used them in Leipzig, and that the congregation in attendance was likely shocked at hearing instruments widely regarded as secular in nature in a church. (The last time we performed this piece, my colleague in the bass section, Peter Young, turned to me as the horns started in an orchestral rehearsal, and with a brilliantly affected “British” accent, proclaimed, “Release the hounds!” I digress…)
Others have described this as slightly militaristic music, which befits the text, a quote of John’s gospel (3:8), “For this the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” This may be the case, but this is one of the most charming and playful treatments of that theme (more Hogan’s Heroes than Mars, The Bringer of War). The fugue that follows the initial declamation of the text is quite lyrical, but Bach uses repeated notes and jaunty horns to keep listeners from becoming too comfortable with the soundscape. It’s a fine line upon which Bach dances: maintaining the joy of Christmastide, while dealing with extremely consequential theological sentiments.
Following the opening is a highly vivid and almost onomatopoetic recitative, inspired by the opening of John’s gospel that explores the paradox of God’s Son being incarnate in the form of an infant. The choir responds with a chorale setting that summarizes a related paradox eloquently: “Sin creates suffering; Christ brings joy.” The inwardness of that reflection is followed by an almost slithering bass aria that asks the devil, “Hellish serpent, are you not afraid?” This is a powerhouse aria for bass, and listeners who remember Joshua Copeland’s brilliance in the aria Streite, Siege, Starker Held! from Cantata No. 62 in last year’s Christmas Concert (a personal highlight for me) know that he’ll bring the same passion and skill to this one!
In the alto recitative that follows, Bach sets a text that ultimately exhorts the believe to take comfort in the incarnation, but which begins with colorful language about the serpent who dripped venom upon God’s children. During this dramatic piece, the singer is accompanied by slurring arpeggiated strings, often without the foundation of the basso continuo, creating a slightly unsettled soundscape. This has an almost operatic quality, with passionate dissonances and vivid text painting.
After that dramatic moment, Bach inserts a chorale that exhorts listeners to shake their heads at the ancient serpent and bid him to flee. The conditions of the battle begun with the opening chorus are now favoring believers, and Bach follows this chorale with a tenor aria, accompanied by horns, oboes and continuo, that almost seems to evoke a victory dance. “Christian children, rejoice!” This joyful music includes the metaphor of Christians as “chicks” under the wing of Jesus.
Bach concludes this very dramatic and vivid cantata with a beautiful prayer to Jesus to take his followers into his grace with intensifying language, “Freude, Freude über Freude,” Joy, joy beyond joy, ending with with the text “He is the sun of grace.”
About 15 minutes long, this cantata is an absolute gem in Bach’s ouvre, and will provide a fitting overture to the rest of music to follow in the concert. We have an excellent quartet of soloists for these concerts, including husband and wife, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, and soprano Anna Grimm (what a pairing!), the lovely mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead, and bass-baritone Joshua Copeland. They’re all singers with great dramatic flair, beautiful clarity, and impeccable sensitivity, and the Christmas Concerts offer an opportunity to hear four remarkably gifted vocal soloists surrounded by the timeless quality of the Bach Choir, and the graceful accompanying of the Bach Festival Orchestra – order your tickets soon!
I’ll continue to post about each of the pieces on the program in the coming days. Next up, a preview of The Choir’s first foray into the remarkably charming music of one of Bach’s French baroque forbearers, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. This piece was last heard in the Valley in 2009 in a performance by our friends in the Camerata Singers with the Pennsylvania Sinfonia (and I can’t tell you the last time before that) – it’s a rarely performed treat, and I know our audiences will love it.
If I’ve whet your appetite, you can also read Dr. Ellis Finger’s reflections on the program in the fall issue of the Bach Choir News.