Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St. Ignatius

The American Bach Soloists conducted by Jeffrey Thomas performed J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio last weekend at St. Ignatius Church, the beautiful, imposing Jesuit stronghold at the top of Fulton Street on the USF campus.

The huge church was packed on Saturday evening for the first ABS performance of the massive work in eight years. The 4 soloists, 16 choristers, and 28 original instrument players were all superb and just about every one of them had a moment to individually shine. The Christmas Oratorio is a recycled grab bag Bach created near the end of his life, consisting of six earlier cantatas with rewritten text depicting the birth of Christ, angels alerting shepherds of the miracle, a circumcision celebration, and finally the Three Wise Men being deceived but not outwitted by King Herod.

Bach's 200+ cantatas are my favorite music from the composer, twenty to thirty minute paeans to God, written for one to four vocal soloists, a small chorus and a chamber orchestra. I wasn't sure if sitting through six of them in a row on a hard wooden pew would turn out to be a trial or a triumph, but happily it was the latter, helped on immeasurably by the wonderful performances by every musician. The soloists were soprano Helene Brunet, alto Agnes Vojtko, tenor Kyle Stegall and baritone Jesse Blumberg (the latter two are pictured above).

It was wonderful hearing the piece live for the first time, and running into the Classical Cool Kids (James Parr, Charlise Tiee and Terence Shek). The only criticism of the evening is that St. Ignatius has weird acoustics for music, possibly because the sound goes straight upwards. Even with good seats the music was muffled, as if it was coming through a wet piece of fabric, and made one wish ABS was performing the work in their smaller, usual haunt of St. Marks Lutheran Church on Geary. It didn't matter. After an aural recalibration, it was easy to simply enjoy the fine performance.

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