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University Choir Sings

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Last Tuesday and Wednesday At Memorial Church

By Kenneth Hoffman

IT IS NO SURPRISE our distinctly secular age has become enamored of music conceived for a faith deeper than most of us profess. Our vague Enlightenment rationalism grants us a tolerance for a variety of religious expressions; and even the intense orthodoxy of a composer like J.S. Bach does not put us off, but perversely enhances our wonder at his accomplishments. The specifics of religious identification within a work like Bach's Christmas Oratorio are lost to us. Yet the sincerity of its conception (and of course the skill of its composition) are as evident now as in the 18th century.

The University Choir sang the first two cantatas of the six that make up the Christmas Oratorio. The performance was a great testimony to the ability of the Choir. Throughout the school year, music at Memorial Church is relegated--rightfully--to a supportive role. The carol programs grant the Choir a chance to perform as a solo ensemble without leaving contest.

Part I of the Oratorio was suffused with the joy of the Christmas festival. The opening chours exploded with, if anything, too much enthusiasm on the part of the timpanist. An initial nervousness was painfully noticeable in the faulty pitch of the above accompanying the first alto recitative. They recouped somewhat in the first chorale when the double-reed timbre out through the vocal sound easily and expressively.

The last four section of Part I were striking: the chorale and recitative beautifully mixed sole and chorus passengers. The air for baritone with trumpet obbligato was played with sensitivity to text and expression. The solo trumpet did not overwhelm the singer and played with clean attacks, soft trills, and smooth phrasing in the upward-receiving suspensions.

The last chorale of the cantata is a masterpiece. The choir fortunately did not strain to produce more volume. The brass punctuation at the end of each verse kept a good balance between vocal and instrumental forces. The entire contain was a powerful and brilliant opening statement.

PART II OF The Oratorio contrasts vividly with the trumpets-and-drums splendor that precedes it. The scoring eliminates the festive instruments entirely and the accompaniments are lighter: a flute is used in two obbligato roles. The one aria had a trio-sonata texture with tenor soloist, flute, and continuo. This form was a special favorite of Bach's for which be wrote some of his best counterpoint. The simplicity and clarity of singer and flutist filled the entire church and maintained the spell throughout the aria.

The air for alto with flute obbligato was sung beautifully and smoothly though with little contrast within each voice. John Ferris, the choirmaster, seems to prefer building with blocks of sound, drawing contrast from combinations of timbre rather than individual efforts within a given part. This is on excellent policy when dealing with an acoustical entity as dry as Memorial Church. In a building that holds over 1000 people and offers no echo, terraced dynamics and antiphonal contrast are the surer path to expressive variety.

Ferris's attention to detail was generally more evident in Part II where the orchestration obscures the subtleties far less than in Part I. The ritard at the end of the first chorale was effective, while the firm rhythmic control lent tremendous excitement and emphasis to the Gloria chorus. The Gloria forms an intriguing comparison point between two grants of the high baroque Bach's thick yet clear counterpoint achieves great power with far less effort than Handel's more broken homophonic style in the Messiah section of the same text the chorus Glory to God.

The care and talent brought to Mem Church music is a pleasure to see and hear. Important details such as providing text translations are attended to. As is common with church music, the performers remained uncredited in the usual sense--no names appeared on the program. John Ferris's conducting style is tremendously musical and convincing without unnecessary theatrics.

The success of the University Choir was no accident. Year after year, they turn out exceptional performances in the relatively unpublicized domain of Memorial Church. They are as excellent in a solo function as in their customary role as part of the Church's "ministry of word and music."

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