For a list of classical music concerts happening during the holiday season in Boulder, click here.
First a tattoo of timpani. Then, unexpectedly, flutes and oboes. And then trumpets in an eruption of jubilation.
It’s one of the most splendid openings ever written. And it’s part of possibly the greatest classical piece you’ve never heard.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which is as popular in Germany as Handel’s Messiah in the United States, hasn’t been performed in the Denver-Boulder area for 18 years. Can you imagine 18 years without a single Messiah performance?
Neither can I. Thankfully, the local drought for Bach’s score ends this weekend, when Pro Musica Colorado of Boulder and St. Martin’s Chamber Choir of Denver combine forces to present the Christmas Oratorio in Denver on Friday and in Boulder on Saturday (see details in sidebar on page 26).
Conducting duties will be shared by the two groups’ leaders: Pro Musica’s Cynthia Katsarellis will conduct the first three cantatas, the first half of the performance; St. Martin’s Tim Kreuger will conduct the remainder of the work. Soloists will be tenor Daniel Hutchings as the Evangelist (narrator) along with aria soloists Amanda Balestrieri, soprano; Marjorie Bunday, alto; Jacob Sentgeorge, tenor; and Robert W. Tudor, bass.
There are a number of possible reasons that the Christmas Oratorio has been overlooked in this country. For one thing, we already have plenty of musical traditions that are familiar to American audiences: Messiah, Nutcracker and all the Christmas-carol singalongs.
Beyond that, the choral parts of the oratorio are fiendishly difficult. It requires first-rate vocal soloists. It was written not for a single performance, like Messiah and Bach’s better-known passions, but as a series of separate cantatas for six days of the Christmas season. That and the differing orchestrations of the six cantatas makes it look like a compilation. And it calls for specialized Baroque instruments, such as the “oboe d’Amore.”
But Katsarellis, music director of Pro Musica Colorado, has no doubt that the oratorio belongs among Bach’s greatest works.
“I believe it is a masterpiece of the same caliber as the [St. Matthew and St. John] passions, I really do,” she says. “I think that there are logistical issues that make it a little harder to program and produce. But Bach definitely conceived it as a whole. He called the six an oratorio, he made the keys work and the drama of it work in one whole, and there was a whole historical basis of [musical] works based on the nativity.
“So there’s no question that he composed it as one big dramatic work. And I think it is just as great as the passions. The music is fantastic. It tells a great story — and a familiar story — with some of the best music ever written.”
If you have heard one of Bach’s passions, the structure and musical content of the Christmas Oratorio will be familiar. The text consists of several layers, including the Biblical narration of the Christmas story, told by the Evangelist; text that is sung by individual characters in the drama, such as the angel and the shepherds; individual reflections upon the meaning of the story, sung as solo arias; and settings of traditional Lutheran chorales that represent the response of the congregation to the story.
Also like the passions, the score calls on all the musical styles of the Baroque era to dramatize the story and delineate the layers of text: operatic recitative for the narration, where the text needs to be easily heard; elaborate arias; traditional four-part choruses; and complex contrapuntal choruses, each as the dramatic situation requires.
“He’s used everything,” Katsarellis says. “He’s used Vivaldi’s kind of concerto, he’s used the antique style of the [a capella] motet, he’s used aria forms from Italian opera, he just uses everything.”
One decision every conductor of Bach’s cantatas and oratorios faces is the issue of performance style. Today, these works are performed and recorded by historical performance ensembles, with copies of 18th century instruments and techniques, duplicating the sound of the composer’s own era.
That will not be the approach in Denver and Boulder, however. Pro Musica Colorado makes music of the 18th century one of its mainstays — Haydn and Mozart symphonies, for example. But they are, unapologetically, a modern instrument ensemble.
“We are doing it with a modern orchestra and modern pitch,” Katsarellis explains. To put together a full orchestra of historically trained performers, with 18th-century instruments, “you pretty much have to be in a major center for that.”
Nevertheless, “we’ve got the dream team, between the chorus and the soloists and our orchestra,” she says. “We’re going to enjoy telling the story, and I hope people are going to enjoy hearing it.”
But if you miss it, you might have to wait 18 years for your next chance.