29 November 2009

ready, set, Christmas

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has become a bit of an odd duck, plucked from its native environment; its six cantatas were meant to be a cycle, but not performed all at once, and the German that made it immediately comprehensible to its intended audience is a barrier for most of us. No wonder Handel’s Messiah, so handily English, is the holiday oratorio of choice in these parts, even though, unlike the Bach, it was not originally intended for Christmastime. So much for historically informed performance practices.

I’ve never quite overcome my first hearing of the Christmas Oratorio, in a freezing cold church in Harvard Square, which dragged on until somewhere around midnight, which is not a criticism of the performance so much as a criticism of icy concert venues. And that’s an awful lot of German to digest for a novice concertgoer. There were no surtitles back in those days, children. Let Grandpa tell you how it used to be!

Actually, it still is that way at the San Francisco Symphony, which eschews surtitles, and which opened its holiday concerts with, as you may have gathered, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, only shortened and translated into English. This turned out to be a very effective way of presenting it, though it’s not quite as shapely as Messiah – during the last two cantatas, the soloists were pretty much the whole show and the chorus sat waiting for their ending jubilation. Maybe I was just expecting more of the chorus because their director, Ragnar Bohlin, was conducting the concert.

The music has plenty of festive trumpets and pastoral oboes, though as in the Bach Passions the chorus often meditates and reflects in a more somber way, occasionally to the same hymn tunes as the Matthew Passion (as the man behind me felt compelled to point out during the performance). I thought they should have ignored period style enough to beef up the strings, which were overshadowed by the brass and woodwinds. Baroque music sits a bit uneasily in Davies Hall, like a hermit crab that has chosen an overambitious shell.

That may be why I found the soprano, Malin Christensson, a bit pallid. Her voice was pretty but way too small for the barn she was singing in. I noticed that she got louder as the performance progressed, so maybe she just needed to adjust. I liked the rich tones of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the contralto. In a switch from my frequent experience, the men – Lothar Odinius (tenor) and Anders Larsson (baritone) were the stronger and more expressive singers. I love the San Francisco Symphony chorus, so their contributions were my favorite part. After working all day (I went on Friday) I enjoyed sinking into the eddying waves of choral sound.

It was very strange to go from an unusually deserted Embarcadero to an unusually deserted Civic Center, passing through the insanely crowded downtown shopping area. My contribution to the newest national holiday, the so-called “Black Friday,” on which we celebrate Capitalism's deliverance of its people, was to buy a burrito. And a very small box of chocolates on sale at Macy’s. I don’t know why, but I thought Davies Hall would be fairly empty, but it wasn’t. I did switch my seat at intermission, which I seem to be doing a lot lately, but not because anyone around me was particularly obnoxious: I just wanted a little more room. We do seem crammed in more tightly at Davies than at other concert halls. This isn’t even about American obesity, though I did see a number of morbidly obese patrons who were having major trouble. You get four or five standard-sized men in a row and it’s sardine city in there. Maybe I’m just dreading my upcoming flight.

I used to go to one or two live performances of Messiah each December; it was one of those things that meant Christmas to me. There’s a subcategory of warhorses made up of the things you never mind hearing again, and for me (obviously this subcategory will vary greatly from person to person) Messiah is one of those pieces, though I have to say that much as I enjoy hearing it I don’t seek it out anymore. The Christmas Oratorio nicely filled the musical space usually occupied by Messiah. I had been a little put off, purist that I am, when I heard it would be abridged and sung in English, but I was pleasantly surprised (big thanks to Mr G/S Y for giving me a ticket) and enjoyed myself very much.

After walking in the pleasantly cool night to the BART station, during which walk not a single driver tried to kill me, I arrived at the platform one minute before my train, which may be the first time this season I didn’t just miss a train and therefore have to wait twenty minutes. And not only did my train pull right in, but it was eight cars (which is what they run at rush hour; usually at at night you get hellishly crammed trains half that size) and the people in it were only mildly obnoxious. Truly, the season of happy miracles is upon us!

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