Tuesday, January 29, 2008

American Bach Soloists: Christmas Oratorio

Sunday night I heard the American Bach Soloists perform Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. This light & airy venue could hardly be more appropriate for this concert.

I have to confess that initially I had my doubts, since the Christmas Oratorio is really 6 separate cantatas intended to be performed on different days from Christmas to Epiphany. I didn't even know you could perform them all in one program. It's a lot of notes! The concert took 3 hours, but it was great. First of all, this is some of the most optimistic, positive & healthy music ever written. The performance itself was technically very clean, with some outstanding soloists. One had a sense of this being a gathering of very fine virtuosi.

There was only 1 instrumentalist per part, so it's a very small ensemble. 4 female singers faced off against 4 male singers on either side of the orchestra. The soprano Abigail Hanes Lennox has a high shimmering voice & is an effective actress. She made every one of her numbers into a complete dramatic scene. The soprano Yulia Van Doren makes a large, liquid sound. Mezzo Sonia Gariaeff also has a large, solid voice.

Tenor Derek Chester should have brought down the house with his terrific breath control & exactness in the thrilling coloratura aria "Frohe Hirten, eilt". Tenor Aaron Sheehan did an amazing job as a clear-toned Evangelist. He had no problem with all those high A's, & he topped it all by taking on the final tenor aria "Num mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schreken". This angular & pointed aria must be taxing, especially after all that declamatory singing, but Sheehan dispatched it with seeming ease. I also got to hear my favorite singer from the previous concert, baritone Jesse Blumberg, who makes a beautiful, large & clear sound.

I liked Debra Nagy, playing both oboe & oboe d'amore. She's a very musical performer & makes a nice sound on these extremely nasal instruments. John Thiessen gave a completely confident & clean reading of the virtuoso trumpet part.

Oddly, I never felt like I got a good sense of Jeffrey Thomas's personality as a conductor. I liked that his tempos were not uniformly brisk, as is often the case with HIP groups. But he often seemed to be doing little more than directing traffic & making ritards at the ends of numbers. Perhaps his talent is bring together talented musicians & allowing them to do their best.

It was also a pleasure to be with such an appreciative audience. The house was full, & because of all the colds going around, I was prepared to hear a lot of coughing. Incredibly, this attentive audience never coughed or displayed restlessness. You could feel that people were really listening to the music. There was only applause after the 1st half & at the very end. This respectful attitude of the audience, as much as the fine performance, made this a very satisfying evening.

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