Friday, December 21, 2012

Handel and Haydn goes back to Bach

Chorusmaster John Finney.
I don't know why this should be so, but somehow it's always a surprise to encounter the sheer joy dancing through so much of the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The oboes d'amore all but giggle and jig, for instance, through much of the great master's Christmas Oratorio, a suite of six cantatas (one for each feast day) written for the holiday season of 1734 (and divvied up, or doubled up, between the two most prominent churches in Liepzig).

"Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day!" the oboes exort us - as the chorus does - and at the Handel and Haydn performances last weekend (of half the work, Cantatas 1, 2 & 6) it was hard, I think, for the full house to resist the temptation to rise from their respective seats and cut a few capers in the aisles.

Of course, though a masterpiece, the Christmas Oratorio isn't quite what we'd call "original."  It's well known that Bach picked his own pocket for much of it, and sampled a few favorite hymns by others as well (the haunting melody to what you may know as "O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded" raises its mournful head more than once).  Needless to say, however, the master's new settings are sophisticated and wonderful, and successfully braid material from mostly secular sources to new, and deeply moving, sacred effect.

At Handel and Haydn, long-time chorusmaster John Finney conducted with just the right interpretive balance between faith and joy - although technically, to be honest, the performance was sometimes a little out of focus.  The ensemble between the various oboes (d'amore and da caccia) bubbling through the piece was superb at its best  - which was often - but sometimes seemed on the verge of slipping out of synch (at least on opening night).  Meanwhile the natural trumpets sounded wonderful, however, as they had earlier this season in Messiah (thanks to Jesse Levine, Paul Perfetti and Vincent Monaco), and in the second cantata there was also a sublime solo on transverse flute from Wendy Rolfe.

The chorale was likewise in fine form in the choruses (as always) - but this time around was tapped for the solo roles as well.  And some of these performances proved variable - a few chorus members aren't entirely comfortable in the spotlight, or project a rather flat stage presence.  Others, of course, have been front and center before, and it shows - there was lovely and dramatic singing, for instance, on hand from soprano Brenna Wells and alto Mary Gerbi, and the reliable Bradford Gleim's bass proved as rich and resonant as ever.

Newer faces, however, were clustered toward the end of the concert - and perhaps took the vocal honors. We heard only briefly from bass Thomas Dawkins, but this was enough to make me prick up my ears - more, please. And then there was the stunning Sonja DuToit Tengblad, whose secure, gleaming soprano all but riveted the audience.  Last (and possibly best) came young Jonas Budris, whose tenor only seemed to grow in power as it soared, and who brought the entire concert to a compelling close.

Which only reminded me that I'm not sure I've ever heard the whole cycle in one place at one time - it's another part of our great choral legacy that doesn't receive its due in terms of professional performance.  Indeed, I think this is the first time Handel and Haydn has sung any of it in something like five years, even though the packed house at Jordan Hall suggested there's an audience out there eager to experience it.  So let's hope we don't have to wait that long to hear the rest.

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