Harvard’s Sanders Theatre was filled to the rafters Friday evening, December 9th, as the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus and Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra combined forces to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Parts I-III. With some 200 musicians, the stage was also filled to within a piccolo of capacity. This sold-out, general admission event had obviously created quite the buzz.
Bach’s plate consistently overfloweth, no more so than during his long tenure in Leipzig (1723 until his death in 1750), during which he served as music director for several prominent churches. In addition to his myriad liturgical duties, which included cranking out a cantata a week, he was also charged by the town council with creating secular music for various and sundry municipal, as well as royal, occasions. Not surprisingly, Bach fell into the practice of incorporating these single-event secular works into liturgical pieces that could be reused annually. This pragmatic bit of recycling, known as ‘parody,’ was used to great effect in his Christmas Oratorio, a six-part work in which each section was written for one of the major feast days of the Christmas season, utilizing material originally conceived for two birthdays and an anniversary. This evening’s concert consisted of the first three sections, which form a tidy triptych denoting the birth of Jesus, the annunciation to the shepherds, and the adoration of those same incredulous shepherds.
Maestro Kevin Leong (who, given his doctorates in both Choral Conducting and Biophysics, should perhaps be referred to as Dr. Dr. Leong), led the affair with an assured baton and a fluid, no-nonsense conducting style featuring no superfluous motion. He set the pace with an energetic tempo right out of the gate in an opening chorus that was pure, unalloyed joy and pure, unalloyed Bach. The massive chorus, now in its 32nd season and whose members span an impressively broad age range, didn’t quite sound as big as they looked, but certainly filled the hall with a vibrant, focused tone. The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, now in its 33rd season and one of only four cooperative orchestras in the country (meaning both musicians and conductor decide what music they will perform), played with competency and verve. There’s nothing like Bach in a good mood.
All of the vocal soloists were seemingly short on years yet long on experience, a dynamic combination. Their performances were clean and polished, demonstrating admirably clear diction of the German text. Tenor and Evangelist Lawrence Jones proved to be the spark plug of the group. His pure, lyrical voice glowed with warmth and his dramatic — downright operatic — readings of the recitatives in the middle section were memorable. Also memorable was the Duet Aria in Part III, featuring soprano (and very angelic-appearing Angel) Brenna Wells and baritone David McFerrin. The gossamer, sweet tones of Wells were complemented by McFerrin’s resonant voice. The result was an engaging performance in which both artists shone. Countertenor Douglas Dodson was consistently affable, albeit without a great deal of inflection. One minor shortcoming was the balance between the orchestra and the higher voices, with the former tending to overwhelm the latter.
In terms of overall effect, while the tempi of the outer, more upbeat sections were appropriately brisk and high-octane, the middle section flagged perceptibly, as conductor Leong opted to emphasize the pastoral aspect of the work with rather sedate tempo selections. That said, the performance as a whole was well crafted and professional, as the performers took us on a joyous ride celebrating new life and the miraculous.
Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.