Music Review: Two groups present Bach holiday treat

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Sometimes it's better late than never. In an inspired Pittsburgh collaboration, the Renaissance & Baroque Society and the Pitt Department of Music presented Pitt's Bach & the Baroque in J.S. Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" at Heinz Chapel over the weekend. By equally splitting between the Saturday and Sunday performances the six cantatas, all geared to various days during Christmas, the two groups achieved something that has never been done in Pittsburgh before -- being the first here to present Bach's work in its entirety on period instruments.

It took a bit of courage -- and probably a deep dip into the coffers -- to bring this musical jewel to Handel country, where "The Messiah" generally rules the holiday roost. There always has been some critical discussion that Bach recycled parts of this work. (Maybe he was ahead of his time.) But in these artists' hands, there could be no nay sayers.

Within Heinz Chapel's intimate confines, the orchestra was seated on temporary platforms, making conductor Don Franklin's entrances and exits somewhat awkward. And the choir was arranged, you might say, like a bouquet of flowers at the back. From my seat near the front, the brass and percussion were buried behind the chorus and a few male voices occasionally stuck out (perhaps the acoustics were better elsewhere).

But there was no doubt that this concert was anything less than a triumph. It was obvious from Franklin's first entrance and the sustained applause (he is retiring at the end of the season) that this would be an event. But as the performance progressed, it became a true labor of love.

Sometimes love can carry you only so far, but not here. With concertmaster and Chatham Baroque violinist Julie Andrijeski's help, they assembled a superlative orchestra from across the country, with masters on period instruments including Barry Bauguess, trumpet, Adam Pearl, organ, Rebecca Humphrey, baroque cello, Carnegie Mellon's Stephen Schultz, flute, and Washington McClain, oboe.

McClain headed a rare contingent of four assorted oboes. "Sleep, My Most Beloved," sung with a sweet clarity by alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith and enhanced by oboes d'amore and oboes da caccia, was particularly lovely.

But that was not the only thing to savor in Bach's musical landscape, where innovative use of the chorale prevailed and the punctuating choruses were resplendent. On Saturday night, Franklin succeeded in establishing a wonderful contrast between the majestic power of the first and third cantatas and the pastoral nature of the second, where the orchestra had a serene presence in the opening sinfonia. Using an economy of gesture and only interceding where needed, Franklin let the music flow from his ensemble, using moderate tempi to convey an aura of lightness and elegance.

Rodrigo del Pozo symbolized that approach as the Evangelist, relaying the story of the Nativity with a clarion tenor that filled the chapel. Bass Mischa Bouvier added a warmth and sustenance to his arias, particularly "Great Lord" and a joyous duet, "Lord, your compassion, your mercy," with soprano Laurie Heimes.

It's not often that all the elements -- soloists, a responsive 22-member chorus and orchestra -- come together as they did here for a very special holiday treat. It was wonderful to sit back and think about not only the performance, but the musical skills and enduring humanity to be heard in this Bach treasure.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 18, 2007) Last weekend's concerts of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" by the University of Pittsburgh's Bach and the Baroque were not the first local performances of the complete work, as was reported in this article Dec. 17, 2007, but rather the first on period instruments. Also, Renaissance & Baroque Society was the sole presenter of the concerts.

Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish@post-gazette.com .


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