We are surrounded with Christmas concerts at this time of year. The Dallas Symphony presents a huge extravaganza, including a reading of the scripture, and the Fort Symphony presented an equally impressive but more secular version a week ago. Even the Turtle Creek Chorale hauls out holiday cheer with two concerts, one being more serious than the other. Thus, it is refreshing to hear more humble and spiritual offerings from one of the fine baroque ensembles in the area: the Dallas Bach Society.
The Bach Society presented its annual Baroque Christmas concert on Saturday evening in the resplendent sanctuary of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Dallas. The 10-voice choir and small orchestra offered a most enjoyable and concise concert that covered a range of Baroque-era music from Spain, Italy, and, of course, Germany. The instruments they used are from the Baroque era and Artistic Director James Richman conducted from the harpsichord, as was the practice at the time. The first half consisted of three relatively short works: a cantata by Heinrich Schütz, a pastorale by Alessandro Scarlatti and a very clever Villancico by Antonio Soler. The second half opened with a dazzling sonata for violin by Heinrich Biber and ended with Part Five of Johann Sebastian Bach's six-part Christmas Oratorio.
There is a great controversy about how Baroque music should be performed these days. Not only is there disagreement on the use of original instruments verses modern ones, but also on how either option should be played. The biggest sticking point is the use or avoidance of vibrato, with both sides firmly dug into their positions. Richman finds a middle ground, allowing his singers to use tasteful vibrato and his orchestra playing almost completely without it. This combination works very well, as the vibrato warms the voices, especially the women who can sound strident otherwise.
This was demonstrated in the Schütz, which was a setting of a text describing the moment the angle Gabriel told Mary that she was to bear the son of God. As Mary, Dianna Grabowski sang with a very light and clear soprano voice. Her use of vibrato was just about perfect, not what you would use for romantic era music but just enough to give the sound life and shimmer. As Gabriel, Nicholas Garza sang in the alto range and also used a similar vibrato. The music went too low for him occasionally and he seemed to struggle here and there, but did an admirable job overall.
Scarlatti's cantata, O di Betlemme altera povertá, is a charming pastorale extolling the rural circumstances of the birth of Jesus. Rebecca Choate Beasley did an excellent job catching the mood. She was particularly impressive with the recitatives, giving them a narrative quality.
Soler's Villancico, a delightful comic duet, was a highlight of the concert. The text consists of a conversation between a composer and the person commissioning a new composition, with the usual haggling over fee and content. Here, Garza sang in his natural voice, but once again, the part went too low for him here and there. Grabowski was amusing as the demanding congregant picking up the tab. The choir hinted at the chorale that might have been the final result: a setting of the angles heavenly Glory to God in the Highest.
After intermission, the concertmaster, Mr. Gallagher (no first name given in the program), gave a superb rendition of a surprisingly virtuosic sonata for violin and continuo. It is part of a series of "mystery" sonatas by Biber that cover the Christmas story. This one is based on the story of the Annunciation. Not only did he play spectacularly, he looked great for his age (the program gave his dates as 1644-1704).
Bach's Christmas Oratorio is really six different cantatas designed to be performed singly during the Advent and Christmas season. It is not an oratorio, like Elijah or The Creation, in that it should never be performed in its entirety at one sitting. Richman moved us along in the story by playing Part Five, which celebrates the Feast of the Circumcision, and is usually preformed on New Year's Day.
Here, Bach added a pair of unusual instruments, the oboe d'amore. This is a Baroque-era double reed that is somewhere between an oboe and an English horn. They are notoriously difficult (as well as treacherous) to play, but the sound is striking. The two players, unidentified in the program, did as good a job as possible but there were moments when the instruments got the best of them.
Bach uses a quartet of soloists in his Christmas Oratorio, so Grabowski, Beasley and Garza were joined by David Grogan, who possesses a resonant and flexible bass voice. He even managed a respectable trill at one point. The chorus and orchestra were also terrific (for the entire concert, not just here), and they brought the energy to the performance that Bach requires, even in the stately chorales.
Having not heard any of the Christmas Oratorio in quite some time, this accurate and engaging performance served as a reminder of what a masterpiece it is. It was even better to hear it performed as it would have been in Bach's time, and with the instruments of the era and a conductor in Richman who both understands the style and how to bring it to life.
◊ The Dallas Bach Society's Christmas offerings continue Dec. 21-22 with three performances of Handel's Messiah, with one of them a sing-along. Go here for more information.