The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater | December 16, 2018

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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to

Posted in Classical music
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  1. I have just looked at the wonderful notes to my recording of the Bach Christmas Oratorio (Harmonia Mundi with Rene Jacobs conducting).

    It seems that this work was not planned by Bach to be held in one church at all, but in 6 churches in Leipzig (“…only the congregation of St. Nicholas had the privilege of hearing the work in its entirety” (Liner note by Hans Joachim Schulze).

    So it was:

    1) not unusual for Bach to present and his listeners to hear a selection of the cantata with certain parts omitted. The learned liner writer notes that “one can regard all of the versions authorized by the composer as equally valid and enjoy …the work as an enrichment of one’s musical experience.” Well put!

    2) St. Nicholas is a larger church than St. Thomas in Leipzig and probably larger than the Madison church in question with seats for some 1,400 people. This obliterates the reviewer’s argument about the church size.

    Comment by fflambeau — December 16, 2018 @ 2:54 am

  2. Here we go again with the crazy section of the “authentic instrument” movement. This guy, who is one of the far out crowd in this movement, complains that the Madison Lutheran church is “much larger” than the one that Bach performed in and that this led to poor acoustics. Oh my!

    Before we hack back the overgrown local church, here’s a reminder that the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig isn’t exactly small either. In fact, it is 76 meters long (that is more than 228 feet) and the nave reaches a height of 18 meters (that’s 54 feet or more). Not a small church. Exact comparisons are difficult because I don’t have blueprints of either but here is more information on the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.,_Leipzig

    Could the “poor acoustics” which the reviewer complains about, in reality, be due to the reviewer’s advanced age rather than the church’s size? Or, where he was sitting?

    Moreover, the reviewer seems to confuse duplication of a performance with reconstruction of one . A famous Bach scholar, Rosalyn Tureck (who unlike the reviewer, wrote several books on Bach) and performer (who also unlike the reviewer was considered an expert Bach performer on numerous instruments), has written this about the impossibility of duplication and some of the drawbacks of the “historical instrument” movement: “Duplication is, in actual fact, impossible to achieve. For like it or not, we are creatures of our own time. We bring ourselves to whatever we do; we cannot succeed in erasing our own identities. The education of a 20th century person is rooted in a very different soil from that of an 18th century person. Much can be learned through historical studies, and deep insight can be gained through personal identification with an era long past, but reconstruction is not synonymous with duplication.”

    So, to achieve or duplicate an authentic performance, wouldn’t the temperatures inside have to match those in Leipzig back when Bach was writing, because temperatures affect musical instruments, ask any musician? This is the “authentic instrument” argument carried to its illogical conclusion.

    It is helpful to return to Tureck’s argument on this:
    “One of the great errors of this century has been produced by its exuberant discoveries of the past. For with its enlightening research and performance efforts, the emphasis tends to become limited to specific 20th century interests in research areas and applications. These inevitably serve to confine and limit the wider area of Bach’s own creative psychology and practice. Another error has been brought about by the 19th century attitudes of either/or, which are still a strong influence in some areas of 20th century musical thought. With the either/or syndrome, the great instrumental questions were reduced to:

    Shall performance be on antique or modern instruments?
    Shall it be on the piano or the harpsichord?
    Shall it be a duplication of Bach’s time or uninhibited modern style?
    In my opinion, these questions were, and are, the wrong questions and they inevitably impede the progress to a deeper fulfillment of the diverse intentions and infinitely rich concept and content of Joh. Seb’s music. The antique and contemporary worlds must exist in association with each other. To move in different channels, each side preserving an unbridgeable gap, simply impoverishes the significance of Bach’s music to the human being of any era.”

    The reviewer also complains about the conductor editing out some sections of Bach. Well, Bach usually did that himself, and fit performances to order. So what? If the audience wants an entire performance, contrary to the wishes of the music director, let them buy a good recording, plenty are available.

    I highly recommend Tureck’s essay, “A View Beyond Reproduction for Authentic Bach Performance” available at:
    She was a pleasure to hear on various instruments playing Bach and one of the leading authorities on his music.

    Comment by fflambeau — December 16, 2018 @ 2:15 am

  3. It seems necessary to correct Mr Barker in noting that it was the talented Wesley Dunnigan who admirably filled in for J.Adam Shelton as the Evangelist as well as in several arias. I might add that while I would have enjoyed the full Christmas Oratorio , the extra two parts would have added an additional 50 minutes to an already full evening that may have taxed both the audience and possibly the choir and it’s possible rehearsal constraints ! As far as the venue goes , few if any are perfect , the relatively large church was essentially sold out . A smaller venue may haved served the text better but would have cheated quite a few from enjoying the performance which no doubt included may friends and family among the performers. Let’s be thankful for the glorious (“mixed?) ” success of a great holiday piece not done nearly enough in Madison! Kudos to all involved! .

    Comment by Randall Wilkins — December 16, 2018 @ 1:59 am

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