Christmas with Bach: Surprises from the Symphony
A year after bringing a masterful Baroque-style performance of Handel's beloved "Messiah," Grant Llewellyn surprised Pinecrest auditorium listeners as he expertly led North Carolina Symphony players, two choirs, and audience members in Bach's "Christmas Oratorio."
In a pre-concert presentation, Leda Scearce of the Duke Voice Care Center spoke about the singing voice as musical instrument. Using sound clips, she described larynx positions and vocal qualities needed by classical soloists and choral singers. By contrast, popular singers, aided by microphones, can produce brassy, twangy, even shouting sounds.
In the lobby a quartet of Lindsay Leach's students played: Carter Kozak, violin; Paige Wylie, violin; Tom Schifanelli, viola; and Caitlin Walsh, cello.
Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" combines six cantatas for church services between Christmas and Epiphany. The Symphony performed the first three, based on St. Luke's Nativity story: the birth of Christ, the angel appearing to shepherds, and the shepherds at the manger.
Like Handel, Bach interweaves choruses, recitatives, arias, and duets and uses musical effects like word painting. "The Christmas Oratorio," more cheerful and intimate but less Biblical, dramatic, and musically varied than "Messiah's" Christmas section, is popular in Germany, where listeners sing along with Bach's chorales, harmonized hymn tunes.
Invoking this tradition, Llewellyn engaged his surprised audience in an entertaining rehearsal of three chorales, including "Break Forth," that reveal "how carefully Bach sets the text." He provided handouts with translations; but in the dark auditorium, full appreciation required knowing German.
Llewellyn's North Carolina Symphony Baroque Chorus, joined by the Capital City Girls' Choir led by Frances M. Page, played the predominant role, from the festive trumpet-led "Shout with Joy" to the closing praise for the "Ruler of Heaven" (both adapted from secular birthday cantatas).
For three of nine chorales sung in English, Llewellyn faced and directed singing concertgoers. The choirs, sometimes overpowered by the orchestra, sang in German and English with precision and expression. Particularly moving was a reverent chorale for the newborn child, "O my beloved Jesus," with interlude passages from winds and brass.
Four world-class soloists, accompanied by varied instruments, sang with clarity, sensitivity to texts, and fitting qualities of vocal performance.
Youthful tenor Aaron Sheehan, in the Evangelist's recitatives, narrated Bible passages with warm tone and British enunciation. For his aria "Happy shepherds, hasten," he hastened along his vocal line with embellishments.
Mezzo-soprano Krista River, singing arias in the style of a lyric soprano, brought out intense spiritual emotions in the German texts. Accompanied by oboes and violins, she first expressed musically the sensual language that welcomes Zion's hero and bridegroom. Later, becoming the Virgin Mary, she sang a warm lullaby with a drawn-out note for "sleep," and, after the shepherds' visit, prayed ethereally, joined by solo violin, that these wonders may remain in her heart.
Baritone Christopheren Nomura revealed his rich, strong voice in the showpiece da capo aria, "Mighty lord and powerful king." Accompanied at times by trumpets, Nomura sang with energy and expression the paradox of Jesus: all-powerful ruler of the world, yet baby in a manger.
Namura also responded to Canadian soprano Anne Harley after she proclaimed the angel's message to shepherds. The pair later blended their mature, well-matched voices, for a complex duet of gratitude: "Lord, your pity, your mercy, comfort us and set us free." During a lapse by the oboe soloists, I was told, Llewellyn hummed their parts.
Johnny Bradburn, music director at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, called the duet "one of the best such performances I have heard." Bradburn praised Namura's profound understanding of his pieces, which he knew by heart.
Among the evening's surprises -- a little-heard oratorio worth revisiting on CD, a sing-along, alternating languages -- was Llewellyn's singing lesson, which displayed the charm, passion, and adventurous spirit that the Welsh maestro brings to the North Carolina Symphony's performances.
Monika Brown is a member of the Moore County Symphony Board and the Emmanuel Episcopal Church choir.
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