On December 31, 2016, Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Bach Collegium present a rare performance of J.S. Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 (Christmas Oratorio), part of the Bach At Seven Cantata Series. Choral Arts artistic director Matt Glandorf shares a little about this seasonal concert. [Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 38th & Chestnut Streets] December 31, 2016. choralarts.com.
Choral Arts performed this work exactly two years ago. Why are you bringing it back?
Matt Glandorf: There were differing factors that came together to make this decision: When I was searching for a season of Cantatas to perform as a fuller cycle, I discovered that the Christmas Oratorio fell right in between 1734 -1735. This lead me to investigate the Cantatas we believe Bach revived and composed during that season. In addition, a generous supporter was so taken with our performance in 2014 that he came forward and offered a challenge grant.
The Christmas Oratorio ranks along with the two great Passions, St John and St Matthew, in drama, inventiveness and beauty, but it’s rarely heard complete, at least in the United States. Although it would be a challenge trying to perform it every year, I like the idea that it could become a regular piece of repertoire for Choral Arts.
What are the general challenges in putting such a major performance together?
MG: Since the Oratorio is really a compilation of six cantatas for the major feasts of the Christmas Season, the instrumentation is different for each cantata. Some have trumpets, others do not. The flutes play for the first three cantatas, and then they’re done. Cantata II requires four oboists, and playing oboe d’amore and oboe d’caccia at that! The two horn players make an appearance in cantata IV and no where else….
In addition, you need a team of excellent soloists. Scheduling the rehearsals after the major busy season for our musicians simply makes logistical sense. There is also more to do for the chorus than in the average cantatas, which usually has an opening chorus and closing chorale. So it’s more involved for the chorus.
Filling a house on a New Year’s Eve could be very risky, yet the 2014 concert was sold out. Are you hoping to see a lot of listeners again this year?
MG: There are so many holiday concerts taking place from early to mid December. I find the idea of a New Year’s Eve concert, post Christmas Day, a lovely way to ‘begin afresh’.
When we performed the Christmas Oratorio two years ago, we indeed seemed to be breaking all of the norms and rules in terms of conventional concert concept, especially given its timing: New Year’s Eve, with all of its revelry and parties; a mid-afternoon rather than at night; scheduling it after the traditional “Holiday Concert Season”. Add to this the fact that the work is relatively unknown. However, the audience turnout and feedback was so positive, several people asked whether we would be doing it every year!
It is a real pleasure to offer an event that can defy traditional patterns and find a foothold in our diverse cultural landscape.
[Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 38th & Chestnut Streets] December 31, 2016. choralarts.com.