J. S. Bach, the Baroque master, is the inspiration for the American Bach Soloists, the choral and orchestral creation (since 1989) of Jeffrey Thomas. Yet for its annual Christmas offering at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis), Mr. Thomas and his musicians have, until this year, offered a steady diet of Handel’s “Messiah,” with each year showcasing a different interpretation of that most popular work.
This year, however, Mr. Thomas finally broke out of the “Messiah” rut by offering another great seasonal treat, Bach’s own “Christmas Oratorio.” It is a far less popular oratorio in this county, but is on more equal footing in Europe. And those in attendance at the performance earlier this month got to experience as close to a rendition of the masterpiece as originally intended as we imagine could be provided in this modern day and age.
What makes a performance by Mr. Thomas’s musicians special is that they all play period instruments and Mr. Thomas tries to emulate the sound that would have been produced at the time the compositions were first heard. Thus he keeps the orchestra to a modest size (25 for this concert) and keeps his chorus small as well (16 singers, plus soloists, with each section – sopranos, altos, tenors and basses – containing an equal number of singers).
The result was an immaculate performance of the entire three hour work that included every aria and recitative in the six part story of Christ’s birth. (Much of the text is from poems believed to have been written by Christian Henrici Picander; it was all sung in the original German, with an English translation provided in the printed program.)
What has always made this Bach oratorio less popular (in the U.S.) than Handel’s equivalent is its length (depending on a conductor’s interpretation, about 30 minutes longer) and the undeniable fact that it is heavily laden with recitatives that lack musical and dramatic punch, for the most part. But the work also contains some absolutely gorgeous passages in both the choruses and arias as well as some wonderful orchestral stretches. In sum, it is a work to enjoy as one enjoys a walk in the park, without expectations, yet with any number of delightful moments and occasional vistas that are truly memorable.
For the concert, the memorable moments were many, starting with each of the four soloists: soprano Helene Brunet, alto Agnes Vojtko, tenor Kyle Stegall and baritone Jesse Blumberg. All four displayed marvelous voices, with Mr. Stegall especially praiseworthy for the quality of his tenor in the higher registers. Among the musicians, Elizabeth Blumenstock and Tatiana Chulochnikova (violins) were noteworthy, especially on a lovely duet in Part IV of the work. But there were many solo opportunities for any number of the musicians (each of the four oboes, for example), and all were performed to near perfection under Mr. Thomas’s gentle but precise conducting.
And if Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” lacks anything as grandly celebrated as Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, it certainly doesn’t need to apologize for the choral portions of the piece. Each is a joy unto itself, with lilting fugues and syncopated counterpoints throughout. Only a few were sung at full fortissimo at this performance, making those moments all the more dramatic.
The concert was performed with one 20-minute intermission. The first half was especially long and probably would have benefitted from a short intermission. In fact, dividing the performance into three sections has worked well at performances we have attended in the past. The six separate and distinct parts certainly invite that kind of division. At the intermission for this concert, more than a few audience members claimed to have nodded off briefly at various points.
The music certainly invites such repose at times. On the other hand, the intricacy of the composition is such that, like a perfect mathematical equation, it is rewarding just to contemplate its beauty.
This performance allowed that kind of experience to unfold. It was, if not magical, certainly sublime.