Adorned with birch trees and wreaths, St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Minneapolis marked the Christmas season when the combined forces of VocalEssence and the Bach Society of Minnesota performed four of the six cantatas that make up the Oratorio of Minnesota. Christmas ”by Johann Sebastian Bach. Situated under the gargantuan baldachin with marble columns, which resembles a giant stone kiosk, the orchestra and choral ensemble let their music soar up the dome.
Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of VocalEssence, and Mattias Maute, artistic director of the Bach Society of Minnesota, swapped their leadership roles during the evening. In doing so, the two musicians revealed their personal style. Brunelle’s direction was broad and expressive, often using vertical gestures to keep time. Maute, meanwhile, surfed with the musicians on the most complicated, even syncopated rhythmic patterns of Bach.
Bach’s Oratorio was a mood booster. Blending Lutheran hymns into the score, the Cantatas exuded a grandeur of sounds and harmonies, with a flowering of choral voices and long, unusually-looking trumpets that added a sense of fanfare.
Bach’s work uses a text from the Bible as the basis for the music. Members of the audience followed the German song with their translated programs. The program generally did not specify which character (shepherd, wise king, holy family, etc.) was speaking, nor whether the voice was more of a commentary, or perhaps other witnesses to the event of the Nativity. The result is both narrative and thoughtful, with a healthy dose of merriment for good measure.
Singer Nicholas Chalmers guided the evening as an evangelist, telling the stories of the Shepherds, the Magi, and Mary and Joseph fleeing Egypt with the baby Jesus. In often rather short recitatives, Chalmers’ crystal tenor voice pierced the sanctuary of echoes. Then, in the final Cantata, Chalmers sang two consecutive recitatives, followed by a tune describing the emotional journey of the Magi, who radiate the good news after lavishing gifts on Jesus. It was a beautiful showcase of the soft clarity of Chalmers’ voice.
The VocalEssence soloists stepped up for their star moments, and there were occasions when the instrumental musicians – like when oboists Kathryn Montoya and Curtis Foster came to the fore.
An exciting moment was a trio consisting of soprano Carey Shunskis, viola Sadie Nelson and tenor Bill Pederson. The trio began with Shunskis and Pederson wondering when the Savior would appear. Then Nelson walked across the stage chanting “Schweigt, er ist schon wurklich hler!” (Shhh! He’s already here!) Nelson’s appearance was so surprising that she added a jerk to the song. The voices of the three performers worked well together, which was not always the case in all groups. In Cantata 3, JoAnna Johnson’s voice was angelic, but her wealth dominated her duet partner, David Gindra.
When soloists came forward for their arias and recitatives, they were often not very well lit, as the best lighting was further in the background, where the main choir and orchestra were. That’s a small gripe, as the space itself, with its oversized statues of saints, neo-baroque architecture, and larger-than-life feeling, created an energized place for Bach’s music to envelop the ears.
Next for VocalEssence
- What: Welcome christmas
- When: 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 4:12 p.m. Dec.
- Or: December 11 at Congregational Church in Plymouth, December 12 at Lutheran Church in Roseville
- Tickets: $ 40 to $ 20 on vocalessence.org.
- Capsule: The VocalEssence Chorus, Singers Of This Age and members of the Singers Ensemble perform works by BE Boykin, Vicente Lusitano and Zaniaida Robles at this holiday concert.