Canticum Novum Singers’ Bach Christmas Oratorio

I haven’t been blogging about the concerts, operas, shows and films I’ve been attending so far this season with any kind of regularity.  I’ve been so busy that blogging fell by the wayside.  I’m going to try to play catch-up a bit now that classes have ended for the fall term, but wanted to start with an event I attended yesterday evening, a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, by conductor Harold Rosenbaum and the Canticum Novum Singers, with the participation of the Artemis Chamber Ensemble, at the Church of St. Jean Baptiste on East 76th Street in Manhattan.  The vocal soloists included Katherine Wessinger (soprano), Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor, singing the parts designated as “alto” by Bach), Tommy Wazelle (tenor – singing the parts designated as “evangelist” by Bach), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone – singing the solos designated as “bass” by Bach). 

Bach wrote the set of six cantatas collectively catalogued as BWV 248 for performance over the course of the Christmas celebrations, one cantata per service.  Because of the sheer length of the undertaking, and variations in the instrumental body from one cantata to the next, he would not have expected them to be presented in one sitting.  Last night’s concert, which began about 5 minutes past 8 o’clock, included a brief intermission after the third cantata, and ended at about 11 pm.  When viewed as “one piece,” that makes the Christmas Oratorio J.S. Bach’s longest composition.  And the challenge is physically daunting.

The challenge of presenting this huge piece was augmented last night by the acoustical challenge posed by St. Jean Baptiste.  In many ways this is a fine room for presenting music, but not such a fine room for presenting Baroque polyphony.  The space is very resonant.  As the performing forces were set up last night, there was no wall directly behind chorus and orchestra to gather and focus the sound out into the audience.  The result was that the orchestra playing sounded a bit of a mess from where I was sitting, in the seventh row on the center aisle.  Trumpets and tympani tended to drown out the strings, and the woodwinds tended to get lost in the shuffle during tutti passages.  The horns, throwing their sound backwards, lacked any focus whatever. The small string ensemble sounded weak and disembodied most of the time.  The small portable organ was more felt than heard.  Rosenbaum’s lively tempi results in smudged polyphony and a haze of sound, especially in the louder passages. The sound of the chorus suffered as well.  These forces may have been doing a magnificent job with the music, but it would be hard to tell from out in the audience.  (I wonder what they sounded like from the conductor’s position on the podium up-close?)

But this was not a problem with the vocal solos.  The soloists stood in front of the orchestra, projecting directly out into the audience, and their sound was warm and focused.  Perhaps having that body of instrumentalists and chorus directly behind them provided the acoustical equivalent of a wall.  Since a large part of the Christmas Oratorio consists of solo recitative and arias, the evening was hardly a total loss.  In fact, the overall effect was quite positive.

As to the soloists, I thought the weakest was Mr. Wazelle.  Although his recitative was strong and convincing, his few areas struck me as underpowered, the vocal line frequently wandering higher than he was comfortable in singing.  He was clearly trying very hard, but was only partially successful.  All of the other vocal soloists were much stronger, with Mr. Costanzo’s high, clear very penetrating countertenor voice — sounding to me more like soprano than alto on this occasion — projecting a startling, strong presence when compared to anything else emanating from the performance space.  Mr. Blumberg, who is a favorite of mine from a wide variety of performances, also sang quite forcefully and effectively.  Ms. Wessinger’s delivery was a bit less forceful, but strong enough for the occasion.  These Bach arias, especially the long “da capo” arias where the musicians are directed to go back to the beginning and sing a substantial portion of the piece a second time, are quite challenging.  I was following in my pocket score and was delighted to hear Costanzo and Blumberg introducing little variations during the repeat portions.

Despite the acoustical problems, I found the experience quite interesting.  This is the first time I’ve heard the entire piece performed in a concert, and I’ve never had the patience to sit through a recording all the way through.  Now I’m inspired to go back and get to know this piece better.  Recommendations for the best recording can be sent to me at

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