Henry Gibbons, a retired University of North Texas music faculty member who still commands the Denton Bach Society, said the upcoming performance of a beefy Bach Christmas oratorio feels like a real accomplishment.
“This is Bach at the peak of his powers,” Gibbons said. “It was written in the 1730s, after the passions and all this choral music that he wrote. This is his best work, and it’s about a happy subject matter, something that Bach didn’t do a lot of at that point.”
The society’s accomplishment, Gibbons said, will be performing the oratorio in a single performance. Das Weihnachtsoratorium — even the Denton Bach Choir and Denton Bach Players call the piece “the Christmas oratorio” — is made up of six cantatas and backed by a big baroque orchestra. Sung as a single concert date, the music lasts more than two hours.
Gibbons said it’s most common to hear the cantatas performed separately, and the Denton Bach Choir has performed parts of the oratorio in the past.
“To my knowledge, no one has done this in its entirety since I’ve been here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” he said. “I heard the piece in its entirety once in New York City, but I never did get to hear it in Germany. This piece is done pretty frequently in Germany — it’s as popular there as Handel’s The Messiah is here.”
Gibbons said he knew the chorus could work up to the cantatas, and he already had a reliable pool of talented soloists to tap into. For this performance, the soloists are soprano Heidi Dietrich Klein, alto Dianna Grabowski, tenor Derek Chester and bass Aaron Harp.
“And this would have been impossible without the collaboration of Denton Bach Players,” Gibbons said. “Musicians are coming in from all over to take part of this. And I’m talking about Cleveland, Albuquerque, Austin and Wyoming. We have people flying in because they want the chance to perform this music.”
The Bach Players make up the core group of baroque musicians who accompany the Denton Bach Choir, the society’s chorus, on historical instruments. Andrew Justice, a founding member of Denton Bach Players, recruited the additional musicians needed to round out the 23-instrument orchestra.
Justice hired players to fill violins, violas, cello, bass, keyboard, oboes (traditional, d’amore and da caccia), flutes, bassoon, trumpets, French horns and timpani.
“Every instrument on stage is a historical, period instrument or a modern replica of a baroque instrument, designed to sound as it would in that era,” he said.
Justice said assembling the orchestra was a task with “several layers.”
“There’s the core: The Denton Bach Players will always be hired. If they’re available, musicians in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area will be hired,” Justice said. “And there are soloist considerations. There are musicians, locally, who I think deserve to play the solos.”
It’s the largest orchestra of the Bach Society’s 2012-13 season, by far — the fall concert was a madrigal program performed without instruments, and the upcoming spring program will be Romantic music with a piano accompanist. Putting together the orchestra was a little bit of a science and a little bit of an art.
“You have to be careful about how you approach this,” Justice said. “You don’t want to hire locally to the detriment of the performance, but there is a flip side of hiring outside talent to the detriment of the organization’s financial standing. You have to make decisions that are good for the performance and that are within the organization’s budget. It’s kind of nice. I got to build the perfect storm of an orchestra.”
UNT faculty member Kathryn Montoya was recruited to be the principal oboist, and Justice hired Colorado baroque flutist Tamara Meredith to join founding Denton Bach Player and flutist Janelle West.
“My rule for contracting for the Denton Bach Players was to play music that I wanted to play with the people I want to play with,” Justice said. “I’m hiring some people I’ve never played with, but who come on very high recommendation.”
Justice said another layer was Gibbons’ preferences. The director calls the shots when it comes to using the orchestra to the choir’s best advantage. Smart orchestration can bolster a small or weak vocal section, or it can give weight to a section of music that needs a larger foundation to the sound.
What can attendees expect? Gibbons said the oratorio’s story is told with a soloist narrator, called “the evangelist,” and a chorus. Both use operatic elements that take the listener from the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the field, to the shepherds’ adoration of the child in Bethlehem, to the prologue of the Gospel of John. The oratorio then moves to the circumcision and naming of Jesus, and to the journey and eventual adoration of the Magi.
“The last cantata is titled ‘The Enemies of Christ Vanquished,’” Gibbons said. “It’s about doing Satan in. Very rich stuff.”
And in typical Bach fashion, the chorus supplies much of the plot-driving recitative, while soloists bring out the emotional colors with arias.
Gibbons said Bach was writing new liturgical music for his Lutheran betters in Leipzig, Germany, on a weekly basis. The pace was one reason Bach opted to use parody — a term that refers not to imitation through mockery, but to the practice of recycling music written for another occasion.
“You have to keep in mind that at that time, composers often wrote music that was for one occasion — the birthday of a prince or something like that — and wasn’t meant to be heard again. Bach and other composers would use pieces from those scores in a new work and set it to a different text,” Gibbons said. “Bach was true to his Lutheran state of mind. He used everything he could and didn’t let anything go to waste.”
But Bach knew when to craft new music, Gibbons said.
“Take, for instance, the passage where the evangelist says, ‘And Mary pondered all these things in her heart.’ Mary’s aria is not parodied. Bach wrote this piece for that moment,” he said.
Gibbons has rehearsed the oratorio with the Bach Choir for months. Justice said the orchestra will have nine hours of rehearsal.
“This music is new to us,” Justice said. “But if you’re a baroque musician, you know how to play Bach. I think over-rehearsing a piece like this is dangerous. I prefer going into a performance like this knowing the music — knowing what we’re supposed to play and how we’re expected to play it. But I think it’s best if you have room for some improvisation.”
Bach soloists and instrumentalists are expected to embellish the musical lines according to their tastes and the harmonic motion of the singers, and Justice said too much rehearsal can lead to rote, stale ornamentation.
Gibbons, who has led the Denton Bach Society in performing cantatas from the oratorio before, said the project has been a satisfying one. With the growth in early music — and revelations from scholarly study of Bach and his music — Gibbons said he sees the cantatas with fresh eyes.
“I’m rediscovering the score,” he said. “I don’t remember what tempo I chose or how exactly we performed this when we did parts of it before, back in the 1980s. Now, as I prepare, I can tell you that the chorus will sing this music very differently than they did back then.
“We want something different from the music. The art has advanced so much.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Christmas oratorio of six cantatas by J.S. Bach
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9
Where: Winspear Hall at UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center, on the north side of I-35E at North Texas Boulevard.
Details: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $12 for students. Supertitles will be projected in English during the performance. For tickets, call 940-369-7802 or visit www.thempac.com.
On the Web: www.dentonbach.com
Pre-performance prep, please? UNT music professor Hendrik Schulze will give a special lecture and concert preview of Bach’s Das Weihnachtsoratorium at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 703 N. Elm St.
Performed together in a single concert, this piece takes more than two hours. Schulze will get audiences more acquainted with this sacred music, and why it remains a satisfying — though rarely performed in its entirety — piece of Bach’s music.
Details: Free; donations will be accepted. A reception will follow.