As was reported this past July when American Bach Soloists announced their 2015–16 season, the celebration of the Christmas season will be a bit more extended than usual. The annual tradition of performing George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah in Grace Cathedral will, of course, continue next month. However, those performances will be preceded by a major offering of Johann Sebastian Bach, his collection of six cantatas for specific feast days during the Christmas season which is now known as the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248).
While Bach did not intend all six cantatas to be performed, back-to-back, during a single service, they were all performed for the first time in Leipzig during the Christmas celebration between December 25, 1734 and January 6, 1735 at services that alternated between the St. Thomas Church (where Bach was employed as Kapellmeister) and St. Nicholas Church. Furthermore, the Lessons for the feast days basically follow the narrative of the Nativity in the Gospels. Similarly, the cantatas are connected by a narrative thread that highlights key episodes from the Gospels without always following the original ordering.
The respective episodes for each cantata are as follows: The Birth, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, the Journey of the Magi, The Adoration of the Magi. Thus, as booklet notes by John Butt for one recording of BWV 248 observes, there is a unity to the entire set of cantatas that most likely was designed explicitly by Bach. (Butt compares this to the unity of the BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor, which stands as an integrated whole even if Bach incorporated music used in earlier settings.)
As in the Passion settings the Gospel texts are sung in recitative by an Evangelist soloist, while the other characters are given voice by other solo parts. Both arias and chorales then provide commentary on the lessons of the texts. For the ABS performance tenor Kyle Stegall will sing the role of the Evangelist. The other vocal soloists will be soprano Hélène Brunet, alto Agnes Vojtko, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. The ABS instrumentalists will include a large group of wind instruments, including four oboes, three trumpets, two horns, two flutes, and a bassoon. Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas will lead all of these resources, as well as the American Bach Choir.
BWV 248 will be given only one performance in San Francisco. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 12. The venue will be the sanctuary of Saint Ignatius Church at 650 Parker Avenue on the southwest corner of the main campus of the University of San Francisco. (The Muni 5 bus stops at the corner of Parker Avenue and McAllister Street.) Tickets are available for $30, $57, $84, and $105; and they are currently available for online purchase from an event page on the ABS Web site.
All four of the BWV 248 vocal soloists will remain in San Francisco for the annual Messiah concerts. These will begin the following Wednesday (which many readers will recognize as the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven). Thus, this year’s three performances will take place on the three consecutive days of Wednesday, December 16, Thursday, December 17, and Friday, December 18. All three performances will again begin at 7:30 p.m. Continuing the long-standing tradition, all performances will be held in Grace Cathedral, located at 1100 California Street, at the top of Nob Hill. Ticket prices are the same as for BWV 248. Each concert has its own event page, but all the hyperlinks are provided on a separate Messiah in Grace Cathedral Web page.
Now for the Black Friday part of this report: Between today (Friday, November 27) and Monday (November 30), there will be a 15% discount on all tickets purchased for both the Bach and Handel performances. (This is the same discount benefit for season subscribers.) During the checkout process for online orders, it will be possible to enter the promotional code BlackFriday2015; and that will apply the discount to the total price of tickets ordered.