San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus sings Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Sat, Nov 28, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall
J.S. BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Selections from the Six Cantatas
Sung in English
Ragnar Bohlin, conductor
Malin Christensson, soprano
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Lothar Odinius, tenor
Anders Larsson, baritone
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
When I heard that the SF Symphony was presenting Bach's Christmas Oratorio with cuts & in English, I was happy to disapprove. But in truth, the work is not such an integrated whole. & Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin kept all the narrative recitatives, so doing it in English made sense, as it compelled us to attend to the story, such as it is. My objection turned out to be with Mr. Bohlin's interpretation. He was never slow, but at times it felt like he was slowing down. The performance often failed to communicate the sense of the words. Bach's joyous, exuberant choruses sounded as spirited as the pledge of allegiance. The Part Two tenor aria "Happy shepherds, haste" had all the urgency of a wait at the DMV.
We had a chorus of about 50 & reduced orchestra with 24 string players, which made a good sonic balance. Principal Peter Wyrick played cello continuo. Mr. Bohlin conducted without a baton & made a lot of wavy hand motions.
I did enjoy hearing contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who possesses a couple of penetrating top notes & holds herself with an operatic bearing. Sadly we heard only one full aria from her. Violin principals Mark Volkert & Dan Smiley were a bright spot in the duo obbligato of the Part IV tenor aria "Thy name I live to praise & honor." The oboe d'amore obbligatos were also consistently lovely. I was taken by surprise when William Bennett ran into a bit of trouble during the Part IV soprano aria "Say, my Savior, tell me rightly" & dropped one of his echoes. I might have heard baritone Anders Larsson pronounce "angel" with a hard G, so perhaps I should not feel completely cheated out of hearing some German.
The Saturday night concert was well-attended. The audience was very quiet & refrained from applauding until the ends of each half. I felt sorry for them. They were clearly in a seasonal mood, but there wasn't quite the lift one would have expected. More festive for me was running into the camera-wielding SF Mike, who rightly advised me that changing my seat would not improve my experience.