On December 11th, the Sanders Theater rang with one of the most successfully ambitious offerings of the season. The Back Bay Chorale under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett presented Johann Sebastian Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio, from 1734) in its entirety. The two-and-a-half hour long musical setting of Christ’s birth story flew by in rich, sparkling textures and a colorful atmosphere of compelling narration.
Bach’s music is often treated as the foundation of much music theory. His chorales are models for beginners in the study of harmony, his counterpoint the end-all for the advanced, and his work in general the epitome of technique for nearly all composers who came after him. What often gets missed in all that awe, however, is the amazing ability he had to create expressive drama. In the vocal works at least, those brilliant and beloved technical skills are simply the tools of a master storyteller; and the Christmas Oratorio is quite the story.
What made the Back Bay Chorale’s performance so engaging was their interpretation of the work as a story told in music. Jarrett assembled a cast of singers and instrumentalists who were able to get past the considerable technical challenges and play to the audience as if they were talking to it. Like Bach himself, they were all so comfortable with their craft that, instead of those challenges being the focus of the performance (as they so often are), they became the vehicle for dramatic musical expression. In the role of the Evangelist, tenor Aaron Sheehan set the tone by delivering the Biblical prose in clear, conversational German, with a bright, almost angelic voice that consistently held the audience’s attention. Baritone David Newman sang all his arias with the joy and confidence of someone who just can’t wait to say what’s on his mind. Mezzo-soprano Krista River seemed to delight in the often unforgiving alto part, which she turned into an intimate narrative. In contrast, soprano Kendra Colton exclaimed her arias as if she were preaching rousing sermons. And the Chorale itself, in mixed formation, sang the choral parts with a clarity and directness that belied its large size.
Though the focus of the Oratorio is on the voices, Bach, as always, wrote instrumental parts that not only support the singers but often seem to converse with them. This was particularly apparent in the Part II arias “Frohe Hirten” and “Schlafe, mein Liebster,” in which flautist Jessica Lizak matched the vocalists with such light and free precision that the arias took on a nearly jazz-like casualness. Similarly, violinist Heidi Braun-Hill’s romantic playing in “Schliesse, mein Herze” (Part III) was as personal a take on the violin part as Rivers’s was on the voice part, creating the effect of two people engaged in impassioned musings. Other stand-out instrumental performances came from hornist Whitacre Hill, whose fluid, lyrical playing added rich color to the two choruses in which that instrument is featured; bassist Scot Fitzsimmons, who lent a surprising ease and flexibility to the continuo; and, in those arias and choruses which featured some of Bach’s famously difficult clarion parts, trumpeter Terry Everson, who played with a virtuosity and musicality that was simply stunning.
All this marvelous musicianship was brought together by Scott Allen Jarrett with a sensitive understanding of what makes this piece tick. His tempi were brisk and bouncy, and yet avoided the superficiality that often results from current trends for speed. That briskness did occasionally work against the music: the Sinfonia that opens Part II should have been allowed to breathe more, so the listener could indulge in its rich, reedy textures; and nearly all the chorales lacked the staid, contemplative character that makes them such poignant interludes. On the other hand, under Jarrett’s direction, effects that could have easily crossed the line into gimmick instead made for convincing theatricality: having instrumental soloists stand, using a reduced choir in two of the bass arias, and especially enhancing the antiphonal sonority in “Flösst, mein Heiland” (Part IV) by placing the echoing oboe and soprano in the balcony. Overall, Jarrett was able to give the whole piece momentum and cohesion, and he knew exactly when to conduct and when to stay out of the performers’ way. It is a tribute to him and the musicians he led that the entire performance of this masterpiece felt like a huge, shining tale told by the Yuletide fire.