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Christmas with the Bach Consort

December is a busy time for musicians. Not that I'm complaining, because when our calendars are full, our paychecks are more substantial, and that's good. Still, after our Christmas Concert Friday night (mentioned here on Thursday), the Washington Bach Consort, for its second concert of the season, performed for the first time in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the following night, December 4. (See my review of their last concert, Washington Bach Consort Opens 28th Season, September 27.) The fact that they were able to get 600-plus ticket-buyers to come to Northeast, instead of their normal Northwest venues, is hopefully a good sign that they will come back in the future. As conductor J. Reilly Lewis noted in his introductory remarks, the music on the program (Latin and German polyphony from the 16th and 17th centuries) was made with this kind of space in mind. At the end of the concert, Lewis acknowledged not only the audience's applause, but with a boyish smile, beamed upward into the enormous dome over the heads of his choir, as if to give thanks for the acoustics. As someone who sings in that place every week, I know what he was so happy about.

As I noted of their last concert, one of the great strengths of the Bach Consort is their excellent and careful programming. The concept of this program ("Christmas with the Consort") was to bring together music for Advent and Christmas, from the generations of composers before Bach, who provided his own educational background, and a few pieces by Bach himself. The first group of pieces brought together the Gregorian hymn Veni redemptor gentium (in a Michael Praetorius setting played on the chancel organ by Scott Dettra, and chanted by the chorus, with four bells, as they processed to the chancel) with the Lutheran chorale derived from it, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (heard in Bach's choral harmonization, Lob sei Gott, dem Vater g'than, a German hymn doxology, and organ fantasia, BWV 661, played on the gallery organ by Reilly Lewis, with the cantus firmus sounding solidly from those big pedal reeds).

After this brief flirtation with Advent, the selections turned solidly to Christmas texts, with Lutheran chorale settings like Andreas Hammerschmidt's Alleluja! Freuet euch, ihr Christen alle for five-part chorus and three male soloists, Pachelbel's Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (played by Reilly Lewis at the gallery organ) and Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (played by Scott Dettra on the portative organ in the chancel), and two choral settings by Michael Praetorius, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (in two interesting parts, sung by seven women) and Ein Kindelein so löbelich. The only Catholic piece in this group was the Latin motet O admirabile commercium! (à 8), by Jacob Handl. This is a beautiful and ancient Gregorian text, but it is not really proper to Christmas, since it was the first antiphon of Lauds on the Octave of Christmas (January 1), sometimes on Epiphany. However, its text is a meditation on the event of Christmas, the "wondrous exchange" effected by God, our humanity for his divinity. The best piece of this section was Constantin Dedekind's setting of the Christmas chorale Uns ist ein Kind geboren for three solo voices (Gisèle Becker, Chris Dudley, and Jon Bruno, on soprano, alto, and bass, respectively), which was beautifully ornamented. Scott Dettra then climbed the stairs to the gallery organ, to play the long Magnificat primi toni by Dietrich Buxtehude.

In the program notes Frank Albinder writes that Melchior Vulpius's Siehe ich sende meinen Engel "is a work particularly suited to Advent," and in collections of Vulpius's music, it is assigned to the third Sunday of Advent. This association with Advent is, I think, post-Gregorian. The text Vulpius set is based on Malachi 3:1 ("Ecce ego mittam angelum meum et praeparabit viam ante faciem meam," or Behold, I will send my angel, and he will prepare the way before me), which was set as an introit in some later chant books, but for the feast of the Guardian Angels (October 2), not Christmas. As I see it, the text does not work particularly well as a Messianic prophecy (Jesus is the angel? John the Baptist is the angel?). The Gregorian introit for Advent III, of course, is Gaudete in domino semper ("Rejoice in the Lord always," which is why the third candle in a traditional advent wreath is rose instead of purple). This doesn't really matter since this piece, like most of Vulpius's music, is quite beautiful listening.

[As I was subsequently reminded on the Third Sunday of Advent, Jesus recast the words of Malachi 3:1, and the similar lines of Exodus 23:20, in the Gospel reading for that day, Matthew 11:2-11, which reads, "This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you." Interestingly, the words in Luther's German translation are "Siehe, ich sende meinen Boten vor dir her, der deinen Weg vor dir bereiten soll." Why does Vulpius have the word Engel instead of Boten? I don't know.]

The cutest piece on the program was Michael Altenburg's Sing, kling und spring, which has a solo echo quartet, positioned above the choir in the great lectern, that chimes in at the end of each line of text with a rhyming echo. All in all, the Washington Bach Consort measured up to its conductor's rigorous standards. Perhaps the scope of the space or the distance that often separated the halved semi-choruses contributed to the occasional minor problems of tuning or ensemble that were evident. The singers were accompanied by a continuo group of five instruments, played by Alice Robbins (cello), Richard Stone (theorbo), Jeffrey Koczela (bass), Scott Dettra (continuo organ), and a bassoonist who was not named in the program.

The combination of Catholic and Lutheran traditions was always instructive. Tradition was maintained in Hieronymous Praetorius's Magnificat quinti toni (based on the Gregorian canticle tone for mode 5, which is set in a modified form in the alternating polyphonic sections), Samuel Scheidt's Angelus ad pastores ait (the text of a Lauds antiphon on Christmas Day), and Hans Leo Haßler's Hodie Christus natus est (Magnificat antiphon for Christmas Day). A new Protestant ethos, rather, is seen in the personalizing, contextualizing approach of pieces in the same group, like Johannes Eccard's Übers Gebirg Maria geht (in which Mary's journey to Elizabeth's home and her Magnificat are seen as something we ourselves might and should do) and Heinrich Schütz's Sei gegrüßet, Maria, du Holdselige! (in which the chorus echos, for all of us, Mary's words "Behold, I am the Lord's handmaiden"). The program was musically and intellectually very satisfying, and I hope the Bach Consort will come back to Northeast in the future.

See also Joe Banno's review of this concert (Washington Post, December 6). You have to scroll down the page a bit.

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