Friday, December 24, 2010

The Lutheran hit parade

Yes, Hub Reviewers, there's yet more Christmas music to review!  Sometimes it seems like musically this season will never end - only frankly, I didn't want "A Bach Christmas," Handel and Haydn's intimate musical offering last weekend, to end.  This seasonal concert, led by chorusmaster John Finney, gives the H&H home team a chance to shine on their own, without any interference or upstaging from jet-set conductors or soloists.

And shine they did, in a lovely concert of familiar and obscure sacred music from the German tradition that reached its culmination in Johann Sebastian Bach (at left, with seasonal greetings). In his on-stage comments, Finney referred to his selections as exemplars of a specifically Lutheran tradition, but his earlier choices still felt quasi-Catholic (one, by Buxtehude, was drawn from medieval sources), and by now even Bach sounds ecumenically Christian anyhow.

Which is fine by me when it comes to Christmas programs. I'm no scholar of this period of German music, but I have to say that Finney's choices this year were remarkably consistent in quality; in fact the concert began to play as a kind of Lutheran hit parade. Buxtehude's In dulci jubilo was hauntingly gorgeous, as were Ein Kind is uns geobren ("Unto Us a Child is Born," after the same text as Handel's famous chorus) by Schütz, and Ehr sei Gott in der Höh allein (Honor be to God on High Alone) by Schein. Finney also included Telemann's sparkling Concerto for Three Oboes and Three Violins to give his period orchestra (led by a spirited Julie Leven) its own moment in the spotlight. The concert concluded with Bach's famous Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, ("Awake, the watchmen's voices"), which includes beneath its bass recitative one of the most memorable melodies the great Johann Sebastian ever penned.

The vocalists, drawn from the ranks of the H&H chorus, were uniformly strong, with lush singing from soprano Susan Consoli and a powerful turn from tenor Ryan Turner in another Bach cantata, the beautiful but rather eccentrically-structured No. 122. Probably the best vocal performances of the program, however, came from local star soprano Teresa Wakim and bass Nikolas Nackley (who deserves a higher local profile). Together they made a delicately moving duet of Bach's "Dialogue between the Soul and Jesus." As with the rest of the concert, the duet was remarkable in both its spiritual depth and touching sense of humility. Humbleness is unusual in Christmas programs - the reason why, I suppose, is a depressing one, so let's not ponder it too deeply right now! Instead let's just savor its gentle power whenever we get the chance, as a few hundred lucky concert-goers did last weekend at "A Bach Christmas."

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