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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
American Bach Soloists / Saturday, December 12, 2015
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor. Héléne Brunet, soprano; Agnes Vojtko, also; Kyle Stegall, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, baritone

Soprano Héléne Brunet

MAGNIFICENT BACH CHRISTMAS ORATORIO IN ABS ST. IGNATIUS CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Saturday, December 12, 2015

The American Bach Soloists presented Dec. 12 a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in San Francisco’s magnificent St. Ignatius Church. The church, built in 1912 and one of San Francisco’s largest, was nearly filled with legions of appreciative Bach and ABS fans.

First heard in 1734 and standing with Handel’s Messiah as a crowning celebration of the Christmas season, Bach’s masterpiece is not heard often, especially given the required array of unusual instruments. Comprising six individual cantatas that Bach had largely composed for other purposes in earlier years, the “Christmas Oratorio” traces the Gospel story of the Nativity. It includes choral sections (offering melodies at times familiar), recitatives that advance the story, vocal arias, and instrumental interludes. The American Bach choir, made up of four sopranos, four altos, four tenors, and four basses, is renowned as one of the finest in the country. Each “Choral” in the “Oratorio” was sung with inspired and captivating beauty, always expressing the emotions of the text.

As a frequent attendee at ABS concerts at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, I wasn’t immediately comfortable with the character of the sound in the immensity of St. Ignatius. It’s preferable to hear early music at an intimate level, in a setting where the most delicate nuances of each voice and instrument can be heard. In St. Ingatius some of the musical subtleties were lost in the cavernous space. Despite this, there was much to enjoy in the evening’s impressive performance. Director Jeffrey Thomas, a respected tenor, was always in command of the sixteen-member “Choral,” the four soloists, and the finely coordinated instrumental ensemble, made up of strings, small organ, bassoon, trumpets, timpani, oboes, flutes, and horns (“hunting horns”). Rarely does one hear a piece scored for three different kinds of oboe, natural trumpets, and valveless French horns. This unusual choice of instruments enriched the wide palette of colors in this wonderful piece. All of the instruments were either eighteenth-century originals or carefully crafted modern replicas.

In the first Cantata, “Triumph, rejoicing, rise,” the chorus, forming a great semi-circle behind the orchestra, sang the dancey 3/4 rhythms, accompanied by trumpets playing brilliant fanfares, timpani, and orchestra. Oboes and flutes commanded front and center in the orchestra, surrounded by strings, bassoon, and organ. The Evangelist, the superb tenor Kyle Stegall, narrated the story with great passion, his delivery heartfelt and nuanced. In the Aria 4 “Prepare thyself, Zion,” alto Agnes Vojtko, a tall, stately beauty, was accompanied by Debra Nagy on oboe d’amore. Ms. Vojtko’s full, sonorous voice was perfectly matched to the deep-throated oboe, the voice making a statement and the oboe answering. Both were supported by the ever-reliable basso continuo (organ and cello), which provided the very important bass harmony underlying the entire work.

In Choral 7, “He is to earth now come so poor,” baritone Jesse Blumberg was joined by the women’s chorus and the two oboes d’amore. First the choir would make a statement, then Mr. Blumberg and the oboes would answer, ending in the Aria 8, “Mighty Lord, O strongest sovereign.” He has a rich, luminous voice, always bringing forth the meaning of the words. The second Cantata opened with a lilting pastoral lullaby-like melody, an introduction with flutes, oboes da caccia, strings, and continuo. The “oboes of the hunt” are shaped like the letter “C,” the bell facing downward, so that players‘ hands can reach the holes (opposite their chest) of this rather long instrument. Their tone is sumptuous, low and earthy.

In Aria 15, “Joyful shepherds, haste,” Mr. Stegall sang with flutist Sandra Miller, known for her superb technique and expressive tone. This beautiful aria showcased both the singer and flutist’s ornamented phrases, glistening with brilliant idiomatic flourishes.

In Aria 19, “Sleep now, my dearest,” Ms. Vojtko’s voice soared in sustained long notes above the quickly moving melodies of the flutes, oboes, and strings. In Cantata 3, in Aria 29, soprano Hélène Brunet and Mr. Blumberg sang the duet “Lord, thy mercy, thy forgiveness.” Ms. Brunet’s lustrous upper register rose above the orchestra, but the lower notes were overpowered at times by Mr. Blumberg’s compelling sound. In Aria 31 Ms. Vojtko’s solo with consummate violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock was exceptional in its beauty. The alto’s poignant tone epitomized sadness in “Keep thou, my heart,” and the violin’s expressive melodies wove around those sung by Ms. Vojtko.

Ms.Brunet’s most charming aria was Aria 39, “Doth my Savior” -- the echo aria--where an offstage soprano and oboist “echo” the soloists on stage. Ms. Nagy played with flawless precision, always with a limpid, sonorous tone. Ms. Brunet could be easily heard in this aria, which had the audience captivated. In Aria 47, “Illumine, too, my gloomy spirit” Mr. Blumberg and oboe d’amore player John Abberger joined in a duet of exquisite beauty. The oboe soared above Mr. Blumberg’s clear, deep, warm voice, which filled the great space of the church.

Later Ms. Blumenstock accompanied a vocal trio (soprano, alto, tenor) on Aria 51, “Ah, when will that time appear then?” and the exuberant violin part was elaborate in its structure, reminding me of an unaccompanied Bach Cello Suite. In Aria 57, “But a wave of his hand,” Ms. Brunet was accompanied by oboes d’amore, with light articulation and intricate interwoven melodies, always with great clarity of line between singer and instruments.

The Oratorio ended as it began, with the joyous sounds of trumpets and timpani, full orchestra and chorus. Instruments punctuated each phrase as it was “spoken” by the chorus. Highly animated instrumental parts could be heard below the simple soaring phrases of the chorus. Christ is now in the world. “Christ hath fully broken all that you opposed. Death, devil, hell and error to nothing are reduced.” All is well with the world. The ABS received a standing ovation for yet another memorable concert.