In the Handel and Haydn Society’s delightful potpourri, “A Bach Christmas,” Martin Roth (ca. 1580-1610) and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) made surprise appearances, adding to the richness of textures and colors of the instrumental and vocal music with which they impressed us at Jordan Hall.
According to BMint’s Sudeep Agarwalla, “One of the oldest musical organizations in the United States, H+H began on Christmas Day of 1815 when a chorus of 90 men (mainly tradesmen) and 10 women from local churches, gathered in King’s Chapel to sing motets and anthems accompanied by a small amateur instrumental ensemble and an organ. H+H’s chorus had reached a peak of 700 amateurs for an extravaganza in the mid-19th century before settling into a groove of 100+ enthusiasts. Goaded by extremely negative reviews from the Boston Globe’s Michael Steinberg, the H+H board, n 1967, engaged Thomas Dunn to transform the organization into lithe, historically informed contingent of generally under 30 professionals. On Thursday evening, the stage held nine singers doubling as impressive soloists along with eight players.
I was touched by the concert’s opening with a treble chorus of 29 youngsters from the Vocal Arts Program Concert Choir conducted by Jennifer Kane, singing J.S. Bach’s “Mein Freund ist mein” from Cantata 140. Very sweet. J.S. Bach has been credited with preserving and performing the cantatas of his second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731), here represented by his “Uns ist ein Kind geboren,” a German motet for double chorus. The master, Johann Sebastian was featured in two cantatas, beginning with Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” with five superb soloists—Maggie Finnegan, soprano (replacing Sonja Du Toit Tengblad); Doug Dodson, countertenor; Emily Marvosh, contralto; Brian Giebler, tenor; and Peter Walker, baritone (replacing David McFerrin). I particularly relished Doug Dodson’s “Schäme dich, o Seele nicht,” accompanied by oboe, bassoon, bass, and organ. The very famous chorale, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” makes two appearances in this cantata, speedily leapt along, spreading cheer. In Part Two of this cantata, Brian Giebler, Emily Marvosh, and Peter Walker each made distinguished contributions. All of the singers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the always-welcome opportunity to deliver Bach.
The admirable H+H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky deftly delivered the devilishly difficult Mystery (Rosary) Sonata No. 1, “The Annunciation,” by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), a musical meditation on the story of Mary being told she will be the mother of Jesus. After this, we heard “Populi omnes jubilate,” a Latin motet for double chorus, from “Florilegia Portensis II by a composer (like so many others from this era) unknown to me, Martin Roth (ca. 1580-1610). Pleasant enough.
The superb soloists Margot Rood and Maggie Finnegan, soprano; Emily Marvosh, contralto; Jonas Burris, tenor; and Peter Walker, bass-baritone made much of J. S. Bach’s Cantata 36, “Schwingt freudig euch empor” (Soar joyfully upwards). Among the very fine instrumentalists, oboist Debra Nagy, trumpet/tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet) Jesse Levine, and cellist Guy Fishman deserve extra commendation. The duet with Emily Marvosh and Margot Rood, as well as the solos of Jonas Budris and Peter Walker particularly deserve admiring notice. It’s amazing to realize that all of these singers are working almost every day and night through this season, yet all under the inspiring direction of Scott Allen Jarret, they committed to this performance as if it were the most important of their careers. The program will be repeated on Sunday at 3 PM, H+H’s 2,365th concert. They are definitely doing a lot right.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.