FROM HEAVEN TO EARTH: It was going to take more than a little bit of Saturday evening snow to dampen the packed house for the Washington Bach Consort Christmas Celebration at the National Presbyterian Church.
(Cover Photo: David Betts | Metropolitan Photography)
by Patrick D. McCoy
A large, bustling crowd swelled the nave of the impressive National Presbyterian Church for the consort’s presentation of four cantatas (I, II, V and VI) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” Conducted by artistic director candidate Dana Marsh, the afternoon was marked by a range of emotional expression: from exuberance, contemplation and certainly celebration. It would be certainly hard to deny the presence of such joy and the yearning to see the late Reilly Lewis bubbled over in it. Yet, Marsh seemed to conduct the singers and orchestra with a sense of honor and respect to that joy that was embodied many years ago. This in itself seemed to endear him to all assembled.
Opening with the festive “Jauchzet frohlocket” the timpani and trumpets regally punctuated the voices of the chorus and strings. The trumpets in particular played with sensitivity, yet with a presence of majesty. As the Evangelist, tenor Robert Petillo, conveyed the sense of the Christmas story with such fervor. With a delivery that ranged from sweet and dulcet to declamatory, Petillo was always consistent and thematically threaded together the age old Christmas story seamlessly.
The remaining soloists of the evening were soprano Kate Vetter Cain, mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith, and bass Steven Combs. All ‘veteran’ soloists with the consort, the quartet was certainly faithful to the task at hand, yielding graciously to a ‘new’ face on the podium. While Cain consistently soared into the nave with an ethereal soprano, Smith rendered her recitatives and arias with a rounded, deliciously velvety quality. Likewise, bass Steven Combs sang with a voice of nobility and strength, particularly in the gem “Großer Herr, o starker König” complemented beautifully by trumpeter Josh Cohen in the upper register.
To many perhaps, the Bach “Christmas Oratorio” is not the music that most would associate for their listening pleasure at Christmas. Handel’s “Messiah,” Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” and even Bach’s “Magnificat” make the list. But throughout the performance by the Washington Bach Consort, one could here familiar strains of familiar chorales that are often sung as hymns in the Protestant Church: tunes such as “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded” and “From Heaven to Earth I Come.”
There were so many instances of glorious singing by the consort under Marsh’s leadership. In Part V, a new found synergy between the forces under his direction seemed to emerge triumphantly in the chorus “Let Honor Be Sung to You, O God.” Fugal in texture, each section of the choir entered one after the other with vocal dexterity and confidence. Marsh seemed himself to become even more animated and this took him home to the finish line.
After an evening of glorious music, the Washington Bach Consort was accorded a thunderous ovation by the large audience. But one must admit that the largest ovation and expression of appreciation of the evening was to candidate Dana Marsh-who seemed to have entered this process with a great sense of respect and humility.
A native of Petersburg, Virginia, Patrick D. McCoy is a graduate of Virginia State University and Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. He has been an arts contributor for Examiner.com, CBS Washington, The Afro American Newspaper and most recently was the Performing Arts Columnist at Washington Life Magazine for whom he interviewed Joshua Bell for the magazine’s arts column “Perfect Pitch.” As a church musician, he currently serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church (Zion Parish) in Beltsville, Maryland and teaches applied voice on the music faculty at Virginia State University, where he also served as guest conductor of the the Virginia State University Concert Choir. Visit www.patrickdmccoy.com for all of your arts news and send press releases and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. He dedicates his musical pursuits to the Glory of God, in loving memory of his mother Velma Ann McCoy-Pulley (1956-2017).