The Leipzig Connection
Avery Fisher Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Ute Selbig (soprano)
Annette Markert (mezzo)
Stanford Olsen (tenor)
Olaf Baer (baritone)
New York Philharmonic
Georg Christoph Biller (conductor)
To a man, my non-musical friends assume that December is my busiest time of the year since they equate the proliferation of classical music with the oncoming of the yuletide period. Actually I tend to avoid Christmas music like the plague but made an exception last evening to bask in the warm traditions of the Leipzig church where Bach toiled away in relative obscurity. There is a deep commitment to music there as evidenced by the total immersion in their art that becomes the life of the resident boy choristers, one of whom is now the cantor of the ensemble, the same position occupied by Johann Sebastian over 250 years ago. The New York Philharmonic has a direct link with this institution as its outgoing music director Kurt Masur is a lifelong Leipzig resident and was in fact a teacher of the present cantor, Georg Christoph Biller, at the Mendelssohn Conservatory. I assume that Herr Biller does not have dining room detail as well but it is apparent that he is in control of his charges musically and, ultimately, their mother superior and father confessor on these road trips. The Thomaskirche cantorial position was established during the days of Martin Luther with Maestro Biller the 16th occupant of the position since the death of Bach. Last evening this splendid choir linked up with a small ensemble of Philharmonic musicians to present (rather mysteriously) one half of the Christmas Oratorio.
To dispense with the bleeding chunk issue straightaway, the work is really a grouping of six cantatas which were written by Bach in 1734 and happened to coincide with a December 25th starting date. Although their common subject is the nativity it is not necessary to present all six as a complete work. However, at one hour and twenty minutes, this had to be the shortest concert of the year for the orchestra and its patrons. Whatever was missing in quantity was more than made up for in quality though, the boys glimmering with angelic voices and crisp technique, the instrumentalists clean and balanced. The soloists were adequate, with only Olaf Baer's stentorian baritone exceptionally impressive. Stanford Olsen's tenor appeared strained, possibly from the inordinately high tessitura of his parts, while Ute Selbig sang for only a brief passage. Yeoman service was performed by Annette Markert, her rich mezzo a little light on volume but pushed to the limit of textual endurance. Her duet in the third cantata with the evening's concertmistress Sheryl Staples was of ravishing beauty. Ms. Staples has just the right rich but intimate tone for this type of music and reinforced why she is such an important player in the revamping of this troubled orchestra.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the proceedings was the unnamed boy soprano who sang the role of the angel. His very anonymity speaks volumes about the attitude of these dedicated musicians. At this church at least it is the music which matters, not the self-aggrandisement which has slowly taken over the overmarketed world of serious music in our time.
Many versions of the birth of Christ are heavily weighted with symbolism, hidden agendas or romantic mystery. It is refreshing to hear three which are purely celebratory. The trumpet fanfares and tympani flourishes announce the ultimate blessed event to the world without prejudice. Perhaps if all Christmas music sounded like this I could become more of a fan and less of a grinch.
Frederick L. Kirshnit