You can’t go wrong with Bach. Any time. Any place. Performed in just about any cockamamie way.
Bach befits Christmas better than any other composer, although he isn’t usually the first to be called upon. Handel’s ubiquitous “Messiah,” suited for Easter, is the Grinch who stole Christmas from Bach’s “Christmas” Oratorio. You will have no troubling stumbling upon a performance of the Handel oratorio wherever you find yourself.
But Sunday happened to be a special Bach day. The joyous “Christmas” Oratorio, which has always taken a backseat to Bach’s great tragic Passions (“St. Matthew” and “St. John”), received an effervescent performance from the Bach Collegium Japan at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa in the afternoon, leaving just enough time to wend through holiday traffic for an equally rare reading of Bach’s motets by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the evening.
In his program note, John Magnum, the president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County (which presented the Collegium), calls the “Christmas” Oratorio the summation of Bach’s art as a composer of sacred music. In a booklet note to his latest recording of the motets, the conductor John Eliot Gardiner claims these unaccompanied pieces for chorus constitute the most perfect, and in some ways most hypnotic, set of Bach’s works. The two together make for a big day.
In fact, the oratorio is an exercise, quite like nothing else, in unabashed elation. The motets, quite like nothing else originally meant to have a funerary function, are an unlikely exercise in abashed elation.
Elation was to be had Sunday, but curiously, it was the oratorio, as performed by conductor Masaaki Suzuki and his exquisitely trained chorus and orchestra, that proved utterly hypnotic in its quest to reveal the intricate perfection in Bach. Meanwhile, the more sweeping approach to the motets by the Master Chorale’s new associate conductor, Jenny Wong, meant raising religiosity much closer to her sleeve.
Suzuki’s Collegium is a special group. It adheres to the rigors of early music performance practice with the ascetic formality of a Noh troupe. Yet Suzuki, with his trademark guru-like flowing white hair, happens to have a lively, even puckish, way about him. The exuberant opening chorus of the oratorio begins with such lines as “Shout for joy … abandon hesitation, banish lamentation, begin to sing with … exultation.”
That is exactly what Suzuki got the chorus to do. The small period-instrument orchestra lacked nothing for neon-brilliant illumination. Unreliable valveless trumpets were astonishingly reliable. Dull, old wood flutes sparkled. Timpani sent out sparks.
It was hard to sit still. Yet it was impossible not to sit still, because there was all that detail to admire. While holding back nothing, Suzuki also missed nothing.
This isn’t a real oratorio but rather a de facto collection of six cantatas, the first three and the final one relating to the Nativity story. The other two are for New Year’s, and Suzuki left them out to keep the performance to just over two hours. It was a reasonable choice. One can handle only so much superb polish — the gloss of the orchestra, the shimmer of the chorus — at one time. Scene setting was exacting in every application of instrumental color. The chorus captured the harmonic intricacies of chorales with micro-tuned flawlessness. Fugues, unexpectedly, seemed almost danceable.
All the emphasis was on the music. Suzuki let the listener apply the religiosity as desired. This went so far as the soloists (soprano Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Zachary Wilder and bass Dominik Wörner). All were adequate, with none bringing out much individuality. But part of Bach’s greatness, as Suzuki ultimately proved, is that while his music has room to spare for the cult of personality (think Glenn Gould), it just as easily and just as incomparably transcends that cult.
The Master Chorale’s Wong comes down on the side of religion. In remarks to the audience, she suggested a cosmic hierarchy with God at the top, Bach in the middle, and the rest of us on the bottom.
It was a bold move for Wong to make her debut with the Master Chorale conducting the six motets, which she led from memory. She used a chorus of 48, large enough to make a mighty sound and large enough to muddy up the rich complexity of inner lines.
She added the accompaniment of cello and portative organ (pairs of the instruments when the choir was divided for the polyphonic motets). They could barely be heard, and proved an annoyance, although they probably helped the chorus maintain steadiness in the difficult contrapuntal passages. Still, why not live it up and use Hurricane Mama, the big Disney Hall organ, and add some real color? It’s Christmas after all.
Wong’s basic approach was for continual grace and beauty, which could lead to blandness but also impressive robust grandeur. Attempts at theater in polyphonic motets didn’t work, such as the chorus clumsily moving to the lip of the stage in front of Wong, who continued to enthusiastically conduct to thin air. But she later undid that pomp by achieving a liminal splendor on the words “Gute Nacht,” bidding a barely audible farewell to sin and pride, the hall lights at that moment effectively lowered.
Elation was the hardest part for Wong, but with the last motet, “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden” (Praise the Lord, All Ye Heathen), she did not fear (subject of an earlier motet) letting go. She let the spirit give aid (the subject of another motet), and the results were glorious elation. You really can’t go wrong with Bach.