The Washington Bach Consort offered a welcomed contrast to the ‘usual’ holiday fare.
by Patrick D. McCoy
As holiday concerts gear up in full swing, you can bet that the majority of performances this season will be the performances of Handel’s beloved oratorio ‘Messiah.’ For many regular attendees of concerts by The Washington Bach Consort, National Presbyterian Church has been the regular home of the ensemble’s season concerts. Last spring, the consort performed Handel’s great work to aplomb at The Music Center at Strathmore. But what made last night’s performance of Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’ at the same venue significant was the fact it was a longtime dream of founder J. Reilly Lewis to celebrate the season with Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” in this very space. “It was a longtime dream of Reilly’s to do Bach’s Christmas Oratorio here, and Dana [Marsh] made it happen” Beth Lewis shared.
The performance also marked a bit of an anniversary. Six years ago, Dana Marsh conducted the ‘Bach Christmas Oratorio’ at National Presbyterian Church as one of the candidates to succeed the late J. Reilly Lewis. Six years later, that electrifying feeling of excitement from the audience was present as it was when Marsh was merely introducing himself to the Washington audience. Hearing the consort in the acoustical wonder of Strathmore added an extra dimension to the consort’s already polished sound. Sung in German, Bach’s ‘Weihnacht Oratorium’ consists of six cantatas that tell the Christmas Story through Epiphany. For this rendering, the consort performed I, II, V and VI.
Bursting with joyful exuberance, the playful dancing of the oboes and flutes, underscored by the pomp and rhythmic flair of Michelle Humphries’ timpani made way for the festivity of the trumpets. A swell of grandeur was inherently felt with the consort voices resounding with ‘Jauchzet’ causing the listener to arise to the joys of the season. Marsh moved the work along with a brisk, lilting tempo that certainly gave a feeling of anticipation to the choral story. As the Evangelist, tenor Thomas Cooley threaded the proceedings together with his elegantly nuanced singing. Solid throughout, Cooley’s voice reached into the cavernous hall with great ease. His role was essential to the nature of the story and he certainly understood the assignment. Alto soloist Sylvia Leith possessed a dulcet voice, but even in the acoustical wonder of Strathmore much of her singing in the beginning was covered by the instrumental forces.
One of the unique aspects of Bach’s larger choral works is the appearance of musical themes from his other vocal output. Several familiar melodies were heard in the choral movements such as the final chorale of Part I: “O Sacred Now Wounded” and in Part II “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.” Baritone Dashon Burton sang with an elegant restraint in his initial recitatives. In the thrilling showpiece for bass and trumpet “Grosser Herr” Burton’s voice found its resonant center. Musically married to the pinpoint precision of Josh Cohen’s majestic baroque trumpet, the aria was a tour de force for both Cohen and Burton alike.
As the Evangelist, most of tenor Thomas Cooley’s singing carried the essence of the story in declamatory fashion. In the aria “Frohe Hirten” Cooley shifted to a lovely legato that floated into the space. Filled with motion and a joyful frolic, he brought true vision to the joyfulness expressed by the shepherds. The evening presented many thrilling moments throughout, but a shear highlight was the “Chorus of Angels.” With the supportive continuo organ by Leon Schelhase, the Evangelist, sung by Cooley set the stage for the full-bodied singing from the voices of the consort. In the aria “Where is the Newborn King of Jews” mezzo-soprano Sylvia Leith voice bloomed beautifully and conveyed the tenderness of the text.
The Bach Christmas Oratorio for the listener was almost reminiscent of the anticipation that is built up in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with the mid-appearance of the soprano in “Glory to God.” Soprano Amy Nicole Broadbent appeared in Part VI. Her voice was clear and radiant throughout. In the aria “Nur Win Wink” Broadbent sang with a lyric soprano that projected into the hall with ease. The angelic beauty of her voice, both height and depth transported the listener to an otherworldly place.
Even though many people will focus on the fact that this is a choral work, one can not ignore the exquisite solo playing that came from the instrumentalists in the ensemble. An “Across the Arts” favorite, Geoffrey Burgess never disappoints on the oboe and shined several times throughout the evening, including in the aria “Erleucht auch meine Sinnen.” With the warm, rounded bass of Burton and the continuo organ, Burgess provided the perfect vehicle for the legato of the voice. Another gem in this crown was the beautiful violin solos by concertmaster Tatiana Chulochnikova. In the “Trio Aria,” the violin beckoned to the soprano, alto and tenor voices as they all asked the question ‘when will the time appear.” It was as if the solid dexterity of the violin lines was providing the answer to the question.
The work came to its triumphant close with the chorale “Nun Seid ihr wohl gerochen.”
A native of Petersburg, VA, Patrick holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and a MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory. Formerly the Performing Arts Columnist for Washington Life Magazine, he currently is a freelance writer, publishing articles for several noted publications and organizations, including The Washington Post, Early Music America, Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, Prince George’s Suite Magazine, CBS Washington, Examiner.com and Washington Classical Review. He holds membership in the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., American Choral Directors’ Association, Association of Anglican Musicians, a former member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors, a member of the Shenandoah University Black Alumni Network, a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and a member of the Sigma Zeta Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America. As an alumnus of Shenandoah, he was named to the Dean’s Circle of the Shenandoah Conservatory Advisory Board. He enters his 7th year as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD and is the newly hired Development and Communications Manager for Washington Conservatory of Music in Glen Echo, MD. Patrick is the host of “Across the Arts” both a live and virtual media platform covering the performing arts. Visit http://patrickdmccoy.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy, IG: PDM06. and subscribe to “Across the Arts” on YouTube.