Festive Cantatas for Christmas breaks with tradition

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The Bach Cantata Project Players’ annual program of Festive Cantatas for Christmas has already become a tradition in Vancouver. The nature of traditions, however, is to change and develop as they deepen. This year’s event is different in three respects: the works are chosen by Early Music Vancouver’s new artistic director Matthew White, rather than the Players’ musical director and first violinist Marc Destrubé; the program of four cantatas includes one that’s not by Johann Sebastian Bach; and the singers include an extraordinary mezzo-soprano new to the project.

“Matt suggested it would be great to do ‘Wie schön leuchtet der morgenstern’ [‘How brightly shines the morning star’] by Johann Kuhnau, who was Bach’s immediate predecessor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, as a context for Bach’s wonderful cantatas,” says Destrubé, reached at his West Vancouver home. “My contribution to the selection was to say, ‘Let’s also do the Bach cantata that has the same text: BWV 1.’ ”

The Players will also perform BWV 182, “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen” (“King of Heaven, welcome”), from 1714 and BWV 132, “Bereitet die wege, bereitet die bahn!” (“Prepare the path, prepare the road”), from 1715.

“The feature of the cantatas that strikes me most is the incredible contrast of expression,” Destrubé notes. “The cantata just mentioned, BWV 1, has this very long opening chorus with horns and solo violins playing very fast notes reflecting the sparkling light of the morning star, and then there are very gentle movements with oboe da caccia, so there are these incredible contrasts not just of music but of expression that you find. A lot of Bach’s music is about transformation of one kind or another and I think that comes out so strongly whatever one’s religious or spiritual background.”

Another new element in this year’s program is the magnificent voice of Meg Bragle, who joins sopranos Shannon Mercer and Catherine Webster, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone Sumner Thompson. Bragle recently made her debut at a BBC Proms concert at London’s prestigious Albert Hall, singing Bach’s “Easter” and “Ascension” oratorios with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists.

“It was a thrill to sing for a crowd of 4,000 ,” she says from her Michigan home. “We’d been touring the program—the ‘Ascension’ and the ‘Easter’ cantatas—earlier in the summer, but the Prom was really special because my instrumental colleagues created such a beautiful, intimate space, so you felt we might have been back in Leipzig. You didn’t have to get overwhelmed by the occasion. It was quite a way to start with the BBC.”

Bragle began as an instrumentalist. “The reason I became a singer is because I realized what an extra dimension there was making music with words. And working with Bach—it sounds like a cliché but it’s true—every time I do a piece it comes out differently, there’s some different element I missed before, or something I realize about how he sets the text. It doesn’t cease to surprise, or inspire actually.”

Asked about the particular challenges of this year’s program, Bragle singles out out the fifth movement of BWV 132. “It’s not one of those violin obbligato/voice things. It’s really two equal voices—in fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s a violin solo with a vocal obbligato. It’s really challenging to fit in the text and make it understood while staying subordinate to what the violin is doing. Bach writes equal lines, instrumental and vocal, to weave in and out of each other, but I think of this as a violin movement, and so it’s my job to put the filigree on, with the text. It’s talking about the waters of baptism and the violin goes”—Bragle sings the descending violin phrase into her phone—“like water in the font, and I fill in there, which is really tricky, but really cool.”

The Bach Cantata Project’s Festive Cantatas for Christmas is at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (December 22).

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