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Outstanding 'Christmas Oratorio' a true holiday gift

| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007

Musical injustice was ameliorated at weekend concerts devoted to Johann Sebastian Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," which has been cast in the shadows in English-speaking countries by the obviously well-deserved popularity of "Messiah" by George Frideric Handel.

Conductor Don Franklin led a deeply gratifying performance of Bach's masterpiece. Heinz Chapel in Oakland, rather than a concert hall, was the right venue for the performance because, unlike "Messiah," Bach's piece was intended for performance in church.

The "Christmas Oratorio" was a joint presentation of the Renaissance and Baroque Society and the University of Pittsburgh's Bach and the Baroque concert series that Franklin founded in 1991. A professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and an internationally recognized Bach scholar, he drew upon an excellent assembly of performers to show that integrity and communicative power can go hand in hand.

Bach's piece is in six parts, each a sacred cantata, and linked by subject and musically. Each cantata has three elements: the story told in recitative (musically inflected speech), arias that provide individual commentary and reflection, and choruses that provide communal perspective.

The performance was beautifully paced, full of natural internal energy but never rushed, and always sensitive to projection of the text. It was sung in the original German, with excellent diction.

The chorus and orchestra that open the "Christmas Oratorio" exuberantly set the tone for the performance. The orchestra was drawn from leading period-instrument performers from around the United States, including concertmaster Julie Andrijeski. Her solo with the admirable alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith in an aria in the third cantata was richly soulful and technically admirable.

The eloquent Washington McClain led an excellent section of oboes, while Adam Pearl provided wonderful keyboard playing on a small portative organ.

The chorus performed superbly throughout both performances. It provided the uncommon experience of hearing a strong tenor section that contributed to the even textures of the choral singing.

The vocal soloists also were outstanding. Tenor Rodrigo del Pozo was superb as the Evangelist, inflecting his words with idiomatic rhetoric, although he was less remarkable in an aria.

Mischa Bouvier was a delight to encounter for the first time. He possesses a powerful bass voice, its dark colors strongly projected throughout the entire range, which he uses with intelligence and commitment.

Dubenion-Smith was yet another strong soloist, with a warm alto sound and sure feeling for line and the way it illuminates words. Soprano Laurie Heimes was a pleasure to hear again.

The "Christmas Oratorio" was the final performance of Pitt's Bach and the Baroque series, and a fitting conclusion to a series that has greatly enriched local musical life. It will be missed.

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