This year the American Bach Soloists (ABS) decided, once again, to supplement their two historically informed performances of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah with an additional offering. Entitled An ABS Christmas, this “holiday special” concert was given only one performance last night at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, the site of the first public ABS concerts given in February of 1990. The first half of the program consisted entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the intermission was followed by a selection of more contemporary offerings for the season.
The program began with the most extended work, the fifth of the six cantatas that comprise Bach’s BWV 248 Christmas Oratorio. These cantatas were written to be sung at services beginning with Christmas Eve and continuing up to the Feast of Epiphany. The fifth cantata was composed for the first Sunday of the new year. The Biblical portion of the text is taken from the opening verses of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, involving Herod’s encounter with the three wise men.
The music is scored for four solo voices, performed by soprano Shawnette Sulker, countertenor Eric Jurenas, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone Mischa Bouvier, joined by the American Bach Choir singing in four parts. The wind resources consist of two oboes d’amore (John Abberger and Debra Nagy), along with two violin sections, one for viola, and a continuo, performed last night by cellist William Skeen, Steven Lehning on bass, and Corey Jamason on organ.
These resources, all conducted by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, gave the music a spirited account. As usual, Bach got off to an energetic account with the opening chorus singing a poetic gloss (by an unknown poet) on the Gloria text from the Mass. There is also a rare instance of Bach writing for vocal trio in which soprano and countertenor ask (in the English translation):
Ah, when will that time appear then?
Ah, when will his people’s hope come?
This longing for the coming of the Messiah is then answered by the tenor:
Hush, he is already here!
This cantata of meditation on the promise of the Nativity was then followed by the overtly joyous BWV 51 cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (praise God in every land). This cantata is well known for its virtuoso demands on both soprano and trumpet soloists, with most of the duo work taking place in the opening aria. Sulker was joined by trumpeter John Thiessen to give a delightfully sparkling account of that aria. The soprano then sings a more reflective aria, following by taking full responsibility for the chorale line for the hymn “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren” (give glory and praise with honor). The trumpet then joins the ensemble for a concluding “Alleluja.” The first half of the program thus celebrated the season with Bach at his most positive and joyous.
The second half consisted of relatively recent settings of hymns, carols, and anthems. The eleven selections were performed without a break. Most were performed a cappella, the most notable exception being the first piece, John Rutter’s “Musica Dei donum” (music, gift of God), which opens with an extended flute solo (Joshua Romatowski), which seemed more evocative of Pan (or at least Claude Debussy’s impression of him) than of the divinity cited in the sacred text. The seamlessness of the performance was particularly effective, particularly as the accumulation of devout spirituality culminated in the striking emotional intensity of a bitonal arrangement of “Silent Night” prepared by David Conte, which included descant solos taken by Sulker and Sheehan.
Thomas seems to have taken this concert as an opportunity to depart from the routine and a time when routine is so much a part of the holiday spirit. Even the juxtaposition of Bach with more recent composers was a break from the usual approach to ABS programming. The result was a thoroughly delightful performance of the music that for many probably prompted new reflections on the holiday season.