Saturday, December 17, 2016

J.S.Bach's Christmas Oratorio performed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Photo: J.Bauer

The first three parts of J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 were recently performed in two performances in Jerusalem and one in Bethlehem. With Gunther M. Goettsche (music director of the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem) and Erwin Meyer sharing the conducting, members of three choirs – the Choir of the Redeemer Church (Jerusalem), of the Schmidt Schule (Jerusalem) and of the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem) joined to form a large chorus. They were joined by the Belvedere Chamber Orchestra Weimar (Germany). Soloists were Heidrun Goettsche-soprano, Anne-Marieke Evers-alto, Sebastian Hübner-tenor and Samuel Lawrence Berlad-bass. This writer attended the performance at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, in which Erwin Meyer was conductor. Father Nikodemus, of the Dormition Abbey, offered words of welcome to the large audience.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was completed around Christmas in 1734. Its format is that of a cantata, with the tenor Evangelist narrating the story of the birth of Christ. All texts sung by the Evangelist are minimally accompanied in order to give the Gospel texts prominence. From Christmas Day to Epiphany in the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it with six commemorations taking place between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany. At each of those events, Bach’s congregation was presented with a single cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, recounting one of the stories, their biblical texts accompanied by reflective texts. The three first cantatas heard at the Jerusalem and Bethlehem performances feature the first three celebrating the birth of Jesus (December 25th), the shepherds’ adoration of the baby (December 27th) and the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day).

From the opening five-note phrase on the timpani, the performance at the Dormition Abbey was one of joy. Choruses, with the chorales reflecting the voice of the people, were well coordinated and articulate; the singers were attentive, their phrases shaped, full of impetus and energy, making for rewarding choral performance. Served well by his bright, rich and agreeable tenor voice, Sebastian Hübner gave the narrative spontaneity and flexibility, at times urgency and even suspense. In the virtuosic “Joyful shepherds, hurry, ah hurry”, he and the orchestra’s very excellent flautist in the obligato role communicated and embellished with alacrity. Honorary professor at the Heidelberg University of Church Music, Sebastian Hübner has a wide repertoire, has premiered new works and is a member of the Schola Heidelberg Ensemble.

There was much natural warmth and richness in the singing of German-American baritone Samuel Lawrence Berlad, standing in for bass Peter Schüler, who had taken ill. His mix of mellifluousness and dramatic flair gave colour and life to text and music, as in the dialogue with obligato trumpet in “Great Lord, O mighty king”.  An opera singer, Samuel Berlad is also a Jewish cantorial singer and voice teacher, heading the vocal department of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. Dutch-born mezzo-soprano Anne-Marieke Evers, much specialized in early music, dealt with the alto recitatives and arias with outstanding vocal presence, projecting her voice amply and with natural ease into the acoustic space of the church. In the aria “Sleep, my dearest”, she recreated this moving jewel of a lullaby in gentle, empathic yet substantial singing, as the basso continuo repeated the note g in octave leaps to depict rocking the baby. With a minimum in the way of solo soprano arias, we heard duets with tenor and bass from renowned voice teacher Heidrun Goettsche. Pronouncing the angel’s words (in effect, God’s words) “Do not fear”, the recitative accompanied by held chords in the strings, we heard one of the girls of the Schmidt School choir, her clean, fresh voice conveying the message of solemnity, succour and hope.

Members of the Belvedere Orchestra Weimar (concertmaster: Johannes Müller) are all students at the Music Gymnasium Schloss Weimar, a selective high school for talented young musicians from Germany and other countries. The orchestra was outstanding throughout the performance, its balance, intonation and obligato roles refined, sophisticated and subtle. Conductor, piano accompanist and composer Erwin Meyer, director of the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem), drew all the participants together in a collaborative performance that was pleasing and focused, with conducting that was articulate, expressive and exhilarating.  A fine mix of people from many communities attended the festive event.



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