Princeton Pro Musica Presents Musical Christmas Gift of Bach
For many years, Princeton Pro Musica maintained a musical tradition of presenting Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime in Princeton. Traditions shifted a bit this year; Princeton’s Messiah offering was presented by the New Jersey Symphony, and Pro Musica turned its attention to Bach. Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau and the more than 100-voice chorus performed two cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the complete Magnificat in D in Richardson Auditorium this past Saturday night, and as the musical accolades to William Scheide keep rolling in, this concert was a fitting addition.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas composed for the celebratory season between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany in 18th-century Leipzig. Parts V and VI, the portions presented by Pro Musica on Saturday night, were composed for the Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany, respectively. As in the oratorios of the time, the narrative is sung in recitative style, and as with Bach’s Passions, much of the narrative is sung by an Evangelist. Musical commentary on the drama is found in the arias and choruses. In Pro Musica’s performance, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson sang the Evangelist role with tight German diction and rhythm, and a clean vocal sound which projected well into the hall, especially when accompanied by a single instrument and keyboard. The two cantatas included arias for seven soloists, with mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lias and Luthien Brackett providing the most dramatic performances of the evening. Ms. Brackett sang arias with a silky tone among all registers (which can get quite low in Bach) with an especially rich tone on the lower passages.
Soprano Justine Aronson sang with a youthful sparkle and soprano Melanie Russell sang expressively, but both sopranos seemed to be more cut out for lush Romantic lines than recitative and the light flexible lines required in Bach. In the Magnificat, Ms. Aronson was able to add expression to the soprano aria in the text,“For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” Baritone Christopher Herbert provided dramatic singing in both the cantatas and Magnificat, with his interpretation of Herod in Part VI of the Oratorio laden with a bit of sarcasm, and the “Quia Fecit” aria of the Magnificat sufficiently regal.
Dr. Brandau kept a light conducting touch throughout the concert, leading a stylishly small orchestra in the Oratorio and an ensemble of period instruments in the Magnificat. Adhering to the 18th-century Kantorei tradition, Dr. Brandau placed the soloists within the chorus, which helped strengthen the already well-trained chorus. A good balance was maintained between the orchestra and chorus, and most notable among the orchestra solos was Geoffrey Burgess, who played most of the oboe d’amore solos in all pieces. A trio of trumpet players, who played valveless instruments, was exceptional in adding a joyous touch to the musical color.
Dr. Brandau assigned much of the Christmas Oratorio to the chamber chorus of Pro Musica, which sang with clean diction and precise entrances following the solos. The full choruses joined on the chorales of the Christmas Oratorio, creating a full sound to close the works. Some of the trickier coloratura passages in the Magnificat were sung by the Chamber Chorus, and throughout the piece, the entire chorus demonstrated effective lilt and phrasing. Conducting effectively without a baton, Dr. Brandau built the terraced dynamics well between the orchestra and chorus.
The Bach works performed Saturday night represented the types of works Pro Musica does particularly well. The concert was a tribute to William Scheide, and showed the exact type of Baroque scholarship and thoughtfulness which he advocated.