Twin Cities audiences will get a rare chance this weekend to see and hear a masterpiece that’s a favorite in Europe but gets little play in America: Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”
The Bach Society of Minnesota will give two performances of the first half of the six-part work: on Saturday night at St. Mary’s Chapel in St. Paul and Sunday afternoon at First Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights (details, Page AA5).
The concert will bring together 35 orchestral players and choral singers, including several featured soloists.
Paul Boehnke, artistic director at the Bach Society of Minnesota, said he’d like to see the work catch on with American audiences. The oratorio tells the story of the Nativity.
At First Lutheran in Columbia Heights, pastor Thomas Carlson said the performance is part of an ongoing music series at the church. “Music is important in our own worship. We also like to share wonderful music with the community at large,” he said.
The selection also is apropos, Carlson said: “Bach is the most well-known Lutheran in history, so it’s fitting to have the group here,. He wrote not just as a musician but as a Christian, so his spiritual beliefs come through, too.”
The Bach Society is eight decades old. As its name suggests, the organization focuses on the music of Bach and his contemporaries. The society strives to present historically informed performances that have a modern twist.
Players use period-style instruments and Old World musical techniques to create a transparent kind of sound. “It’s not just one giant wall of sound, but it has many different lines all weaving around each other,” Boehnke said.
In the singing, some syllables are more accentuated than others. “The unaccented syllables make room for someone else’s lines to come through,” he said. Boehnke will touch on that and other aspects of the “Christmas Oratorio” in a preshow talk.
Overall, the baroque work is “quite festive and glorious. It’s touching. It spans quite a range of emotions,” he said.
The music has an evangelist narrator who guides the story through “recitatives,” a convention that the Baroque composers developed. “Recitatives” are “something like speech; they just put pitches on them as well,” Boehnke said.
Chorales, or hymns, also are in the mix. It’s possible that Bach’s congregation sang the hymns, though the crowds this weekend will get a pass on that: “I won’t ask the audience to sing in German,” Boehnke said.
The first and third segments, called “cantatas,” are festive. The middle section has a pastoral feel, which makes sense considering that shepherds enter into that portion, Boehnke said.
Baroque music like this “must dance,” he said. Just as “people will say, ‘Does that song have a good beat? Can I dance to it?’ The oratorio has that sense about it,” he said, adding that the music dates to a time when “people did tons of dancing.”
The Bach Society’s origins
The Bach Society of Minnesota originated in 1932 as an extracurricular group at the University of Minnesota.
A group of students who had an affinity to Bach’s music approached Prof. Donald Ferguson, for whom the university’s music building is named, to lead the society, Boehnke said.
Since then, the group has been through a number of permutations.
It wasn’t long before the Society branched out beyond the university. For many years, it was the go-to chorus for the Minnesota Orchestra, Boehnke said.
A decade ago, then-artistic director Thomas Lancaster refocused the group on the music of Bach. For starters, Lancaster assembled a small group of professional artists, including musicians who played period instruments. All in all, Lancaster “changed the nature of the group,” he said.
Boehnke, who stepped into the artistic director role in 2007, said he’s tried to build on that, while also finding creative ways to keep the music fresh and relevant.
For example, the group leads daylong workshops for amateur players who are interested in learning a Bach cantata. The Bach Society also has teamed with the jazz trio Framework for some performances. The idea is “not just to put jazz clothes on Bach, but to find out how they can influence each other,” Boehnke said.
Steve Staruch, a classical music radio host for MPR who is playing his viola in the Bach Society’s upcoming holiday concert, said it’s that level of professionalism that keeps him involved with the group.
As a freelance musician, there’s often a “heat and serve,” mentality, where “You go do the gig and then you’re done,” he said.
But Boehnke has helped the players to coalesce as a group. He’s been “very good at trying to raise the level of performance and commitment among the period-instrument players,” Staruch said.
When players are called to do a job, “They know they’re making music at a very high level,” he said.
Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.