VocalEssence and Bach Society of MN make beautiful music together in Christmas concert
The two talented sets of musicians collaborated on three cantatas from J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”
Ask leaders of Twin Cities arts organizations, “What changed during COVID?” and you’ll often hear the word, “collaboration.” Groups that once considered themselves competitors started having conversations about what they could create together.
A successful example came when our foremost champion of contemporary choral music, VocalEssence, teamed up with the Bach Society of Minnesota, a group devoted to setting the dials on the wayback machine to 1750 or so.
Since 2021, the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and the Bach Society’s historically informed instrumentalists have collaborated on December presentations of J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” and — judging from Friday night’s first performance of the 2023 edition — this is a case in which two talented sets of musicians raise the bar for one another, much to the audience’s benefit.
Within the brick-lined interior of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, they performed a concert that felt like a conscientious effort to convey the spirit and genius of Bach as eloquently as possible. Under the clear direction of conductors Philip Brunelle and Matthias Maute, the concert cast a vibrant spotlight upon multiple individuals within each group.
The cantatas of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are as much of a showcase for soloists as choir. Hence, fully half of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers’ 32 members were given either arias or recitatives to display their artistry. Similarly, soloists shone forth from within the Bach Society Orchestra, sometimes in antiphonal exchanges with vocal soloists, other times via transporting melodies that resonated within the sanctuary and the hearts of those hearing them.
A complete performance of the “Christmas Oratorio” would be a marathon concert best saved for a full afternoon or presented in two parts. Instead, VocalEssence and the Bach Society settled upon three of the oratorio’s six cantatas, throwing in Part 1 of a Bach Advent cantata, No. 147 (which contains one of his most beloved melodies, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”). This story in song — sung in German, but with English translations in the program — is about Jesus’ birth and the three kings’ subsequent visit.
But it didn’t feel the least bit abridged, not when VocalEssence’s soloists were trading phrases with the Bach Society’s players. A stretch of such treasures arrived in the oratorio’s second cantata, when a gentle chorale was followed by a gorgeous high recitative from soprano Kathryn Rupp and a liltingly beautiful duet between flutist Anita Rieder and tenor Nicholas Chalmers, who proved a powerful anchor all night as the Evangelist (our narrator in song).
Similarly, alto Kristina Rodel Sorum exchanged lovely lines with oboist Kathryn Montoya on Cantata 147, as did bass Joe Kastner with cellist Rebecca Humphrey and soprano Carey Shunskis with violinist Margaret Humphrey (the cellist’s sister), who found the magic in one of those transcendent Bach violin solos that are equal parts heart and intellect.
While Brunelle expressed his interpretive ideas well on the two cantatas he led, Friday’s concert served up a reminder that Maute might be the most colorful, charismatic conductor in town. His enthusiasm for the music was likely palpable in the back row at this almost-sold-out concert, and his animated manner — along with the musicians’ passionate playing under his leadership — might convince you to check out the Bach Society even when it’s not partnering up with another group.
VocalEssence and the Bach Society of Minnesota
What: Three cantatas from J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”
When: 4 p.m. Sat.
Where: Westwood Lutheran Church, 9001 Cedar Lake Road, St. Louis Park
Tickets: $19.50-$45, available at bachsocietymn.org