Decked out with birch trees and wreaths, the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis brought in the Christmas season when the combined forces of VocalEssence and the Bach Society of Minnesota presented four of the six Cantatas that make up Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” Situated underneath the gargantuan marble-columned baldacchino, which looks like a giant stone gazebo, the orchestra and choral ensemble let their music soar to the lofty dome.

Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of VocalEssence, and Mattias Maute, artistic director of the Bach Society of Minnesota, traded off conducting duties over the course of the evening. In doing so, the two musicians revealed their personal style. Brunelle’s conducting was broad and expressive, often using vertical gestures as he kept time. Maute, meanwhile, surfed with the musicians through Bach’s most complicated, even syncopated rhythmic patterns.

Bach’s Oratorio was a mood lifter. Mixing Lutheran hymns into the score, the Cantatas gave off a grandness of sound and harmonies, with a flourish of the choral voices, and long, unusual looking trumpets that added a sense of fanfare.

Bach’s work uses text from the Bible as a foundation for the music. Audience members followed along with the German singing with their translated programs. The program didn’t generally clarify which character (shepherd, wise king, holy family, etc.) was speaking, or whether the voice is more of a commentary, or perhaps other witnesses to the event of the Nativity. The result is a work that is part narrative, part reflection, with a healthy dose of rejoicing for good measure.

Vocalist Nicholas Chalmers guided the evening as the Evangelist, narrating the storylines of the shepherds, the Magi, and Mary and Joseph fleeing Egypt with baby Jesus.  In recitatives that were often quite short, Chalmers’ crystal tenor voice pierced the echoey sanctuary. Then, in the last Cantata, Chalmers sang two back-to-back recitatives, followed by an aria describing the emotional journey of the Magi, who are glowing with the good news after lavishing Jesus with gifts. It was a nice showcase of the smooth clarity of Chalmers’ voice.

Soloists from VocalEssence stepped up for their featured moments, and there were occasions when the instrumental musicians — such as when oboists Kathryn Montoya and Curtis Foster moved to the front.

An exciting moment was a trio by soprano Carey Shunskis, alto Sadie Nelson, and tenor Bill Pederson. The trio began with Shunskis and Pederson wondering when the savior would appear. Then Nelson entered at the other side of the stage, singing, “Schweigt, er ist schon wurklich hler!” (Hush! He is already here!) Nelson’s appearance was so surprising it added a jolt to the song. The three performers’ voices worked well together, which wasn’t always the case in every grouping. In the third Cantata, JoAnna Johnson’s voice was angelic, but its richness overpowered her duet partner, David Gindra.

When the soloists stepped forward for their arias and recitatives, they were often not lighted very well, as the best lighting was further upstage where the main choir and orchestra were. It’s a small gripe, as the space itself, with its oversized saint statues, its Baroque revival architecture, and larger-than-life feeling, created an energized place for Bach’s music to envelop the ears.

Next for VocalEssence

  • What: Welcome Christmas
  • When: 4 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11, 4 p.m. Dec. 12
  • Where: Dec. 11 at Plymouth Congregational Church, Dec. 12 at Roseville Lutheran Church
  • Tickets: $40-$20 at
  • Capsule: The VocalEssence Chorus, Singers Of This Age, and members of the Ensemble Singers take on works by B.E. Boykin, Vicente Lusitano, and Zaniaida Robles in this holiday concert.