Friday, December 27, 2013

A Bach set for Christmas at H&H

Scott Metcalfe, music director of the Renaissance choir Blue Heron (below), has counted as a rising star ever since the New Yorker deigned to notice one of his CDs (anyone in the know in New England already knew that Blue Heron was fabulous, but suddenly it was official). That new minor-celebirty status, combined with his carefully structured conducting (with thoughtful scholarship backing up each and every choice), made Metcalfe a natural (it seemed to many) to guest conduct Handel and Haydn's "Bach Christmas" concert this year.

And the results, heard a week ago at Jordan Hall (my apologies for the late posting!), were always lovely, and often transporting. Perhaps they weren't ablaze with originality, though - as most personal quirks seem to have been ironed out of Metcalfe's smooth, gently concerned style - and at first the program plodded ever so slightly, in a "Musicology Today!" sort of way.

But Metcalfe is intriguing in that he openly embraces the "sacred" in sacred music (unlike many latter-day conductors), and often tries to suggest a ceremonial experience during his performances (this attitude was clearer in his Blue Heron Christmas concerts, which were sandwiched in between his H&H concerts - yes, Mr. Metcalfe was quite busy this holiday season - but a reverent atmosphere prevailed at H&H as well).

Something else striking about Metcalfe, and which deserves more comment, is that he's musically ambidextrous: the orchestral playing in "A Bach Christmas" was just as spirited and detailed as the singing (indeed, Metcalfe himself played baroque violin in the instrumental interludes). This isn't always the case - in fact it's usually not the case - which makes Mr. Metcalfe a special talent indeed.

But on to what happened onstage - for the proof of any talent is in the pudding, no? "A Bach Christmas" started slow, it seemed to me; Metcalfe's opening conceit was to explore Luther's 1542 hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, ("Now come, savior of the heathens"), first through a simple reading by a  single voice (tenor Stefan Reed), and then through three settings of the tune by Praetorius, worked in rising degrees of polyphonic and choral complexity. The singers gave each piece a light, luminous quality, and the performance arc proved quite interesting as a demonstration - but alas, Praetorius, a composer (in my opinion) of solid skill but only occasional spark, didn't truly transform his materials until the final, antiphonal version of the set.

Scott Metcalfe
Then, however, came the great Johann Sebastian's turn, in his well-known Cantata 62, and instantly Luther's carol was transformed almost beyond recognition (indeed, its "hook" was all but subsumed in the dazzling "overture" to the cantata).  The shock (and seeming modernity) of Bach's virtuosity was only enhanced by some truly passionate playing from Metcalfe's ensemble, which seemed at first to slightly overpower his singers.  But bass David McFerrin cut a forceful profile in his solos (German seems to suit the burnished timbre of his voice), while countertenor Martin Near, stepping in for the ailing Thea Lobo, blended well with soprano Brenna Wells. And the Cantata concluded with a chorale sung with superb grace and subtlety.

Next came more from various Bachs, all of them Johanns - Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Ludwig Bach, and Johann Bernhard Bach; indeed, the whole clan seemed to have stopped by for Christmas (except, alas, for the long-forgotten Johann Barbara Bach). All these Johanns were first or second cousins of the Big Kahuna (although all were born earlier - in Christoph's case, some 40 years earlier), and surprisingly, all their works proved of interest (or at least of more interest than the preceding Praetorius pieces).  Perhaps musical talent can be traced to genetics, or perhaps the German musical scene was so forcefully normative that it was almost prescriptive; but you could have been forgiven for discerning a family style here, which Johann Sebastian suddenly transcended. Johann Bernhard's dance suite in G Major was particularly appealing, and was played with light, gentle wit by the H&H orchestra (with Metcalfe himself on fiddle).

The concert concluded with more works of the just-pre-Johann-Sebastian-period from Samuel Scheidt and (yes) Michael Praetorius (sometimes this almost felt like a "Praetorius Christmas"!).  I was happy to make more of an acquaintance with Scheidt, however; his Duo seraphim was warbled sweetly from the gallery by soprano Margot Rood and tenor Marcio de Oliveira (and proved almost as exquisite as the similar stretch of Monteverdi's Vespers) while his Puer natus in Bethlehem, led at first by the soaring soprano of Sonja DuToit Tengblad, was simple, joyous, and heartfelt - and was thus quite moving.  I even began to warm to Prateorius, particularly his antiphonal works.  His own Puer natus in Bethlehem proved a model of technical variety, and Metcalfe gave it a rousing, rhythmic force, while the call-and-response of his familiar In dulci jubilo here was suffused with warm color, which Metcalfe hung onto for the more forceful and complex Singet und klinget, which concluded the program.  It's true that, unlike the music professors, I would have preferred to hear more from my favorite Bach at this "Bach Christmas." But I admit I mostly had a jolly time all the same.

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