Friday, December 25, 2015

Concert Review: The annual magic of the Bach Society Christmas Candlelight Concert, December 23, 2015

The Bach Society at Powell Hall
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As it has every Christmas season since 1951, the Bach Society of St. Louis presented its Candlelight Concert last night. It's a local tradition grounded in fine musicianship and intelligent programming, and marred only by the fact that it lasts but one night.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of attending this annual gala, the concert is in two parts. The first is the more "serious" of the two and usually features the traditional classical repertoire.

This year, in anticipation of the organization's 75th anniversary, the focus was on selections that have graced previous Candlelight Concerts, beginning with a lively and lucid performance by the chorus and orchestra of "Jauchzet, frohlocket" ("Shout for joy"), from Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" under the baton of the Bach Society's long-time music director A. Dennis Sparger. The trumpet section is featured prominently in the music, and delivered it with wonderful clarity and precision.

Noted soprano and area native Christine Brewer (born in Grand Tower, Illinois, just a couple hours south of St. Louis) was the soloist for the next two selections, the brief "Et exultavit" (the second movement from Bach's "Magnificat") and some selections from Part 1 of Handel's "Messiah." Her voice was clear and fluid, and the tessitura of all the selections sounded like a good fit for her.

Christine Brewer
Photo: Christian Steiner
When she returned in the second half of the concert for a chorus and orchestra arrangement by Mack Wilberg of Adolphe Adam's Greatest Hit, "O Holy Night," she seemed not entirely comfortable with the low notes in the opening, but really nailed the rest of it, garnering a well-earned standing ovation.

The first half of the concert concluded with "Christmas Medley" an inventive arrangement of three carols by Utah Symphony chorus master Barlow Bradford that made nice use of the chimes, xylophone, and other percussion instruments.

It's the second half of the concert that gives the event its name, though, and it's undoubtedly the most anticipated part. It consists traditional carols sung by the Bach Society choir, assisted by the St. Louis Children's Choirs. It opens with the candlelight procession. The lights dim, and the members of the Bach Society walk down the aisles singing, each with an electric candle. If you're lucky enough to be sitting downstairs in the orchestra section, you're soon surrounded by singers—some carrying the melody, some the harmony, enveloping you in a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sound. Meanwhile the sound of the children's choir floats down from the dress circle upstairs.

Giovanni Gabrielli, that great exponent of the antiphonal school of 16th century Venetian choral composition, would have loved it. Heaven knows I did.

The rest of the second half focused on carols old and new, often in ingenious and delightful arrangements. I was especially taken with Stephen Paulus's setting of "I Sing the Birth" for chorus, harp, flute, and percussion, as well as Stephen Mager's version of the Medieval German carol "Resonet in Laudibus," with its little trio of female voices set antiphonally against the full chorus.

I even enjoyed the lively reworking of the traditional Burgundian carol "Pat-a-Pan," with its Las Vegas-style Latin congas. In fact, percussionists Erin Elstner and Kim Shelley deserve a special nod for their versatile work throughout the evening.

Mr. Sparger oversaw it all in fine form on the podium, handling the program's variety of musical styles with ease and occasionally narrating with dry humor.

The St. Louis Children's Choirs had their moments in the spotlight as well, under the direction of Karen Kaibel and Emily Pikaard, with John Leavitt's arrangement of "People Look East," a version of "O Come Little Children" incorporating the orchestral accompaniment of the final chorus from Bach's BWV 147 cantata (better known as "Jesu, joy of man's desiring"), and "Believe" from the animated film "Polar Express."

The Bach Society's Candlelight Concert is over, but the organization has some ambitious programming lined up for its 75th anniversary season. You can find out more at

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