All the remnants from the 2 p.m. performance by Carolina Ballet of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker were just a memory as UNC Chapel Hill's Memorial Auditorium quickly transformed itself into orchestral concert mode. While not exactly rare, live performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio, whether complete or, like tonight, featuring a subset of its six parts, are special treats, allowing listeners to experience the majesty of this masterpiece up close and personal. This was the final presentation of this program by the reduced forces of the North Carolina Symphony under the direction of its music director and conductor Grant Llewellyn. The distinguished quartet of vocal soloists were Anne Harley, soprano, Krista River, mezzo-soprano, Aaron Sheehan, tenor, and Christopheren Nomura, bass. The rigorously auditioned North Carolina Symphony Baroque Chorus and the Capital City Girls Choir provided the choral forces.
Written for the Christmas season of 1734, Bach liberally incorporated some of his earlier compositions including three secular cantatas and a now lost church cantata. What we heard tonight were the first three sections that describe the birth of Jesus, the annunciation to the shepherds and the adoration of the shepherds. Like in Bach’s passions, the tenor soloist sings the part of the narrator/evangelist.
Upon entering the hall, the audience received what at first appeared to be just your standard sheet containing the texts, but contained within were three full SATB scores of three of the chorales that were part of the oratorio. When Maestro Llewellyn came out, minus the soloists, he proceeded to explain how these chorales were meant to be sung by the congregation. He then proceeded to have a 20 minute rehearsal with the audience singing these chorales. This was done with great charm and humor, but at the same time deadly serious. Dynamics, breath control, attention to text and proper pronunciation were just some of the musical aspects he touched on.
The opening chorus with its high trumpets and triumphant air is one of the great moments in choral literature. The orchestra was light yet rhythmically buoyant and precise. This is one of the larger orchestral forces for this genre that includes two each of flutes, horns, oboes, bassoons, two oboes da caccia (deeper voiced cousin of the oboes) as well as stings, tympani and continuo. While this should not be considered as a HIP (historically informed performance) it was still somewhat of an anachronism to see a Roland electronic keyboard on stage as a substitute for a portative organ. Perhaps this incongruity was taken into account as you could barely hear the modern marvel.
The soloists were all outstanding yet each very different in sound and approach. Soprano Harley (who had the least air time in these three sections) was especially delightful in her duet with bass Nomura. Mezzo River was ethereal with her ability to sing absolutely straight pure tones and slowly expand to a delicate vibrato that was the epitome of vocal tone painting. Sheehan displayed some frighteningly fast melisma passages and was a subdued but effective evangelist. As good as these three were, it was when bass Nomura first sang that you could sense a collective “wow” creep through the auditorium. Although he held his score at his side, he never looked at the music and the power and depth of his voice was tornadic in its effect.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link” is a cliché that can apply to many organizations, including choirs, string sections or any non-solo musical ensemble. Unfortunately, as wonderful as the choirs were in this performance, there was one unknown soprano who sounded like she wandered in from a rehearsal of a Wagner opera. This wide, wobbly, operatic vibrato, that seemed to increase in volume as the evening wore on, became the crabgrass of an otherwise perfect choral blend and authentic sound.
Bonnie Thron, as the non-electronic continuo player, was, as usual, splendid in her musicianship and anchor of many sections of this performance. Concertmaster Brian Reagin had a lovely obbligato dialogue with soprano River. When it came time for the audience participation in the three pre-rehearsed chorales, maestro Llewellyn turned to the audience, the lights came up and I must say that we did a pretty good job. But it was clear that we were most happy to leave the rest to the professionals.