Bach Choir brings Christmas concerts to two cities
Two cantatas that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote specifically for the holidays in the 18th century highlight the Bach Choir of Bethlehem Christmas concerts, 8 p,m. Dec. 8, First Presbyterian Church, 3231 Tilghman St., Allentown, and 4 p.m. Dec. 9, First Presbyterian Church, 2344 Center St., Bethlehem.
The Choir, conducted by Bach Choir Artistic Director Greg Funfgeld, will be joined by the Bach Festival Orchestra and five soloists on three joyful pieces to usher in the season.
Cantata 63, “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (“Christians all, this happy day”), was written for Bach’s first Christmas in Leipzig, where he was church cantor, and was performed at the morning service on Christmas Day, 1723, Funfgeld says, noting that one aspect that makes the piece so celebratory is its use of four trumpets.
“In the 300 cantatas Bach wrote, only twice did he use four trumpets instead of three,” Funfgeld says. “It makes it really exciting and kicks it up a notch. It really enriches the festive quality of the cantata.”
The piece also employs timpani, which is often used in conjunction with trumpets, three oboes, bassoon and strings.
Funfgeld says the cantata features two beautiful duets, for soprano and bass, and alto and tenor, adding that the first duet is more vibrant, while the second is more introspective. “It is accompanied by oboe and is full of longing,” he says.
The cantata also contains one of the great recitativos accompanying all of Bach’s music. The alto part is sung by countertenor Daniel Taylor, who Funfgeld calls one of finest baroque singers in the world.
The recitativo is accompanied by strings. Funfgeld terms it one of Bach’s “crowning achievements.”
The other cantata, Cantata BWV 36, “Schwingt freudig euch empor” (“Soar joyfully aloft”), was composed in 1731 in Leipzig for the First Sunday of Advent.
“It has a wonderful opening chorus that is very exuberant,” Funfgeld says.
He says the piece has more intimate orchestration so he is using a smaller group of 36 singers. It also includes a lovely lullaby for soprano, accompanied by a muted violin.
The two Bach cantatas bookend the rarely-done “Laud to the Nativity” by Ottorino Respighi, an Italian violinist and composer from the late-Romantic period.
Funfgeld says Respighi, who is better known for his trilogy of orchestral tone poems celebrating Rome (“Fountains of Rome,” “Pines of Rome” and “Roman Festivals”) very seldom wrote choral music. “Laud” is his only religious choral piece.
A musicologist and enthusiast of the music of earlier centuries, Respighi drew on his knowledge of earlier music in a traditional narrative of the Nativity.
“This piece is really gorgeous,” Funfgeld says.
The piece tells the story of Mary, an Angel and the adoration of shepherds, orchestrated for two flutes, oboe, English horn, two bassoons, triangle and four-hands piano.
Funfgeld says there are solos for Mary, the Angel and the Shepherd. Featured as Mary is soprano Fiona Gillespie, who previously was one of the Bach Choir’s choral scholars. ”We are so thrilled to have young local talent for Mary,” Funfgeld says.
Fungfeld says the piece also has a “great deal of writing for men’s voices.
“The Bach Choir’s men are singing beautifully,” he says.
He adds that exquisitely-written passages for a woodwind ensemble is a “wonderful showcase for our woodwind players in the Festival Orchestra.”
The soloists include, Taylor, Gillespie, Canadian soprano Ellen McAteer, tenor Charles Blandy and baritone Christόpheren Nomura.
As is the annual tradition, the concerts conclude with the audience joining the Choir to sing Christmas carols, concluding with “Silent Night,” sung in German and English.
Funfgeld says the Choir performs its holiday concert in Allentown and Bethlehem. “We try to take the music throughout the Lehigh Valley,” he says. “We’re always trying to broaden our reach.
Tickets: Bach Choir office, 440 Heckewelder Place, Bethlehem; firstname.lastname@example.org; 610-866-4382