Glover leads MOB in a meticulous and exuberant “Christmas Oratorio”

By Michael Cameron, Chicago Classical Review
November 26, 2018

It’s hard to consider Bach’s Christmas Oratorio without first putting his masterpiece in the context of that other Baroque behemoth that monopolizes choral concerts around the holidays.

Never mind that Handel designed his oratorio for Easter, while Bach’s work is explicitly intended for the 13 days of the Christmas calendar. The Messiah is the undisputed favorite throughout the western world, while Bach’s creation languishes in relative neglect. There are at least four Messiahs on the calendar of professional orchestras in the Chicago area alone this year (including one by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and untold numbers of amateur readings, but if Bach is your preferred cup of tea, Music of the Baroque is the only option.

The most obvious explanation for this imbalance is that Bach’s work presents steeper hurdles for both performers and audiences. Handel, master of the operatic stage, wrote tunes as memorable as any composer while treating the voice more sympathetically than Bach. The latter’s demands on his instrumental forces are also similarly more exacting.

For conductors, there is also a historical obstacle to consider: Bach didn’t intend his work to be performed in its entirety in one setting, and never performed it this way himself. It is in fact less an oratorio (Bach’s label notwithstanding) than a series of six cantatas corresponding to the feast days of the Christmas celebration. Modern single-evening performances are a form of binge listening, a work-around of sorts for a secular society.

Even Music of the Baroque hadn’t performed the work often before the reign of Jane Glover. She has made the Christmas Oratorio something of a cause célèbre, with MOB subscription performances in 2010 and 2014. This recent history is no doubt one factor in the remarkable polish and assurance brought to her compelling account Sunday night at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Even with a looming blizzard warning, a nearly full house made the pilgrimage. For all of its challenges, the oratorio is ultimately a joyous, celebratory affair, and Glover and her forces delivered on a reading that was meticulous in detail while brimming with an overarching, infectious exuberance.

The core of the performance was the gleaming, impeccably prepared 26-voice chorus. Choral director William Jon Gray trained his singers with a laser focus on the minutiae (crisp diction, impeccable balance, dynamic precision) while plumbing the essence of the text, a mash-up of verses from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, with additional commentary likely provided by Christian Friederich Henrici (aka Picander).

Many of the more thrilling moments came in the opening choruses of each of the cantatas. “Jauchzet, frohlocket” opened the performance with bracing rhythmic pulsations, ebullient choral declamations, and vigorous interjections from trumpeters Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer and timpanist Douglas Waddell. Few choral movements in the repertoire are more unabashedly virtuosic than “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen”, and the MOB singers were a model of etched clarity and animated vigor in Bach’s dizzying melismas.

The melodies of the ten chorales would have been familiar territory for Bach’s parishioners, but the composer’s endlessly inventive harmonizations no doubt surprised and amused them. Glover’s dynamic choices were neatly tailored to the demands of the text, and she unerringly negotiated the twists of the chorale/recitative hybrid “Wohlan, dein Name soll allein”.

The four soloists were well chosen, and for the most part provided engaging and idiomatic readings. Most impressive was tenor Thomas Cooley’s Evangelist, delivering secco recitatives with alert vibrancy and lyrical arias with ringing tone and dramatic urgency. He was riveting in the tortuous aria “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben”, even with strain evident in some ascending leaps.

Baritone Tyler Duncan was equally appealing in “Grosser Herr”, tailoring his resonant timbre to match the contrasting imagery of the mighty king slumbering in a crude manger. Yulia Van Doren’s warm, focused soprano was used to charming effect in the “Echo aria” (“Flosst, mein Heiland, flosst dein Namen”), paired with oboist Anne Bach in a series of droll mirrored responses with a soprano/oboe backstage duo.

Even though self-borrowing was viewed as a common and acceptable strategy in this era, the Christmas Oratorio is especially note-worthy for its extensive recycling. One striking example is the tender “Cradle aria” (Schlafe, mein Liebster”), which began life in a secular cantata featuring Hercules and the allegorical “Pleasure”, only to be retro-fitted as a lullaby for the infant Jesus. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong sang with dark-hued richness, but missed the intimate delicacy inherent in the genre.

The MOB chamber orchestra was superb, even with the occasional upper register crack in the otherwise exceptional trumpets and horns (Otto Carillo and Neil Kimel). Violinist Gina DiBello was the captivating soloist in the obbligato parts of two arias, while Mark Brandfonbrener (cello), Collins Trier (double bass), William Buchman (bassoon), Mark Shuldiner (harpsichord), and Andrew Rosenblum (organ) did yeomen work as the splendid continuo team.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.; 312-551-1414