Cantatas, Carols and Christmas Cheer
By Victoria Looseleaf
Everything old is new again: “A Chorus Line,” the 1975 groundbreaking musical, is back on Broadway, dazzling new and old fans alike; Marie Antoinette has been brought back to luxe life under Sophia Coppola's hip handling in the movie of the same name; and Johann Sebastian Bach comes roaring into Walt Disney Concert Hall yet again, this time with the finale of his famed - and no less superb - “Christmas Oratorio.” The celebratory opus, BWV 248, a three-hour work if performed in one sitting (call it the “War and Peace” of oratorios), began in 2002 under Grant Gershon's exacting baton, and has become a Chorale holiday staple. With this sixth installment the last of the cycle, we complete a journey that began in 1733, the year that 49-year old Bach began composing the six cantatas he intended to be performed at six different times between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany, traditionally January 6. The fact that the orchestration for each cantata differs is further indication the composer never intended them to be performed as one work. A multi-tasker, Type-A personality, Bach, though he never traveled more than 200 miles from his hometown of Eisenstadt, nevertheless infused spirituality in all that he did: In an ode to his beloved pipe he once wrote, “On land, on sea, at home, I puff my pipe and think of God.” That he had already tossed off both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, his attention could now be turned towards the Oratorio, completing it in only a year. The libretto, attributed to Picander, makes extensive use of Lutheran hymns (richly harmonized by Bach, they would have been familiar to 18th century congregations), and comes from several different sources, while the customary mix of recitatives, choruses and arias abound throughout. The tenor soloist (Evangelist) acts as Narrator, with other figures traditionally associated with the Nativity story - angels, shepherds and the like - also making stellar vocal appearances. Ornamentally detailed arias are the most extended numbers in the Oratorio, acting as serene meditations on the sacred significance of the unfolding events. Part six, written for the Feast of the Epiphany, has 11 movements, notable among them the alto, tenor and bass quartet. Scored for chorus, soprano and tenor solos, the orchestra includes three trumpets, two timpani, a pair of oboes, strings and continuo. But it is the quality of the narrative that renders the Oratorio with awe-inspiring freshness. Here is Herod sending the Wise Men away, beseeching them to return with information so that he, too, might worship the King. The Wise Men then follow the star to Bethlehem and, upon finding the child, offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, a noble conclusion of the beloved tale where each element reveals Bach's supreme musicality, one in which he continually illuminates the relationship between love and life. This glorious music, which was initially forgotten after Bach's death and only rediscovered in 1857, is Christmas incarnate, its spirit our spirit, its beauty a reflection of all that is great in the world: In short, a truly wondrous gift.
Pre-dating Bach by more than a century, Renaissance composer Peter Phillips (1560-1628) lived most of his life in the Netherlands when it was under Spanish rule. His five-minute motet, “Hodie nobis de coelo” (“Today from heaven true peace descends”), penned for double choir and organ continuo, perfectly embodies the holiday season, its joyous and florid sonorities setting a gentle tone. Another work also teeming with Christmas flavor is a setting of the “Ave Maria” by the German composer Franz Biebl (1906-2001). Although written in 1964, this gem found renewed life as a holiday staple thirty years later when recorded by Chanticleer for a Christmas album. Also scored for two choruses (one smaller than the other, however), this a cappella piece bubbles with lush harmonies while exhibiting tenderness, clarity and simplicity of form. As 2006 draws to a close and we pause for a moment to reflect, we find comfort, as well, in carols. Whether warm and fuzzy or pure and pious, these tunes that harken back to the thirteenth century were originally communal ditties sung during celebrations such as harvest tide and Christmas. But since the singing of Christmas carols was widely discouraged during the Middle Ages, with various religious faiths struggling for supremacy, it was not until the 18th century that the performing of carols enjoyed a revival, appearing not only in church but also specifically linked with Christmas. Coming from the French word, carole, a circle dance believed to be derived from ancient pagan rites, the term became known for songs with a call and response quality, which then turned into verse and refrain. Carols, or round dances, became popular at various festivals until eventually were de rigueur at Christmas. Today the form - with memorable tunes often based on medieval chord patterns - is as varied as an Yves St. Lauren couture collection, with carols (often performed a cappella), generally considered any short piece having to do with winter celebrations. Emblematic, then, of solstice delight are Wilbur Chenowith's “Noel, Noel, Bells Are Ringing,” and the traditional “Ding Dong! Merrily On High,” both using voices to imitate the sound of bells. Giving the men a chance to shine, tenor and Chorale member Shawn Kirchner, perhaps best known to audiences for arranging the popular “Wana Baraka,” has worked his magic on “Brightest and Best.” An arrangement of a shape note hymn from the “Southern Harmony” book published in 1835, the work also features Kirchner on keyboards. The women trill on their own in “S'vivon, a traditional Chanukah carol performed in Hebrew. Accompanied by piano and two violins, this piece has a festive klezmer feel to it. The full chorus returns with “Lux Aurumque” (“Light of Gold”), a gorgeous five-minute work by Los Angeles-based composer Eric Whitacre. Set to an Edward Esch poem and sung in Latin, it features brilliantly soothing harmonies. Back by popular demand is the Mexican Baroque treasure, “Dame albricia mano Anton.” Composed by Gaspar Fernandes (1570-1629), “Dame's” exhilarating rhythmic accents inject this piece with ebullient brio. Of course, no holiday concert could be complete without “The First Nowell” and “Silent Night,” both sung here with full chorus, the former an audience participation number. And again, from our neighbors to the South, comes “Mananitas a la Virgen de Guadalupe,” a popular Mexican carol arranged by Christopher Moroney, director of the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble, while William Mathias sets a medieval text for “A Babe Is Born,” the virtuoso organ part a keeper. Also culled from the global village repertory is the Jamaican carol, “De Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy,” arranged for men's voices by William Llewellyn, followed by more sing-alongs in the forms of perpetual favorites, “Deck the Hall” and “Jingle Bells.” “Go Where I Send Thee,” arranged by Andre Thomas, is in the gospel/spiritual tradition and caps an evening of vocal magnificence, one that promises to open our hearts while connecting us to ancient traditions and a world of hope and love - something marvelous that only music can do.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.