By Lawrence Toppman
Before the pandemic, Bach Akademie Charlotte (BAC) anchored its first two seasons with Johann Sebastian Bach’s profoundest utterances, the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion. During the pandemic, BAC settled for virtual performances and lectures via Zoom.
Since then, artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett has devoted himself to celebration in the big pieces on his spring programs: The Easter and Ascension Oratorios in 2022 and the six-part cycle of cantatas known as the Christmas Oratorio this week. WDAV broadcast the Saturday night concert live from Myers Park Presbyterian Church and will do so again Tuesday night.
You have to attend four concerts to get all six segments, which premiered in Leipzig in 1734-35. Jarrett has divided those up and paired them with other works over two evening performances and two matinees. The fest officially opened Saturday night with parts 1 and 2, accompanied by a brief Sanctus in C and yet another Christmas cantata, this one unrelated – though similarly buoyant in tone – and composed two decades earlier. (The fest opened unofficially Friday with a performance by harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.)
I’ve been to three of the four live festivals and have grown accustomed to the satisfying pattern: An orchestra of about 24 musicians, mostly Baroque specialists recruited from around the nation, plays alongside a chorus of 16. Singers function like an all-star sports team: Each comes forward at some point to take solos, and they’re all skilled in Baroque performance style.
Unlike the Mostly Mozart Festival, whose title defines it, this one seldom veers from Bach. Organist Clive Driskill-Smith devoted 40 percent of his Sunday concert at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to other composers, but Jarrett doesn’t diversify. The five concerts he programmed offer 16 minutes of music by anyone else, eight by one of Bach’s cousins and eight by one of his sons.
Any variety in them comes from the composer himself. Even those of us who commit the heresy of wishing Handel and Vivaldi joined the mix can admire the way Bach colors his compositions.
Consider the oboes da caccia, curved wooden instruments bound in leather that look as if they summoned hounds in the 18th century. (The name means “hunting oboes.”) When they enter in Part 2 of the Christmas Oratorio, which depicts the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth, they suggest the pipes of shepherds walking down the hill to see the newborn king.
Jarrett, an informative host, told us the timpani flourishes that open part 1 are probably the first timpani solo in Western music. Those and the trumpet fanfares that followed reminded us that Bach repurposed a lot of this music from secular cantatas, often those written for patrons’ birthdays or name days.
These musical bursts and the opening line for the chorus – “Shout ye exultant, this day of salvation” – set the tone for the whole Christmas Oratorio, which Bach meant to be spread out from Christmas Day through January 6. “The 12 days of Christmas” is more than a teeth-grating holiday song: It’s a period stretching from Jesus’ birth through his circumcision and naming to the visit from the Magi. Except for a brief moment of unease from the deceptive Herod, Bach gives this whole musical arc a buoyant warmth.
Yet for me, the highlight Saturday night was “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (“Christian, etch this blessed day,” as in bronze or marble). Bach wrote it in his late 20s, as a hard-working choir director in Weimar known mainly as a keyboard player, and it has a young man’s exuberance.
It opens with a blast from four trumpets, something he never did again, and it sweeps us away on a tide of positive thinking. Though Satan briefly peeps impotently at us in the finale, the chorus affirms that Christ’s arrival means we can walk in grace henceforth. If that sentiment didn’t send you out of the church on a cloud of joy Saturday, what could?