Reams of copy have been written about the frantic pace of 21st century life. But, three centuries earlier, as Kantor of St. Thomas’s, Leipzig, composer Johann Sebastian Bach more than likely knew a thing or two about feeling hassled and harried as well.
Bach’s responsibilities included not only playing the organ and conducting the choir, but teaching Latin and music at the local school, composing music for the two main Lutheran churches in the city, supervising and training the musicians at two others and hiring musicians and singers as needed for church services. Nevertheless, he managed to write many of his most beloved masterpieces during this period, including the celebratory Christmas Oratorio, which Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra will present on Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m. at AT&T Center Theater in downtown LA and Sunday, December 9 at 3 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica.
The Christmas Oratorio tells the story of the Nativity as related in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Yet, while today the work is performed in one evening, Bach actually composed the work to be performed as six separate cantatas over the traditional 12 days of Christmas, popularly known as Christmastide or Twelvetide – December 25, 26 and 27, New Years Day, the Sunday after New Years and the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. These six “feast days” celebrated key moments in the Christmas story, beginning with the birth of Jesus and ending with the Adoration of the Magi. Musica Angelica will present four of the six cantatas -- #1, 3, 5 and 6.
“There’s a saying, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person,’ and in Bach’s case, this was especially true,” says Musica Angelica’s Music Director and conductor, Martin Haselböck. “Yes, he had a job to get done – the upcoming Christmas season was fast approaching as he began work on the Oratorio – but he also had a deep abiding faith in the power of music itself. A faith you can feel as you listen to the Christmas Oratorio. This is joyous music, moving and unforgettable, with glorious arias and choruses and resounding, thrilling instrumentation. From the opening chorus, accompanied so dramatically by timpani, you’re swept away. Your soul is stirred, just as Bach had hoped it would be. ‘The sole end aim of all music,’ he once claimed, ‘is the glory of God.’ “
Yet for all his faith in the power of music to transcend the realities of daily life, Bach was a realist. “He knew he could devote only so much time to composing the Christmas Oratorio,” Haselböck explains. “So what he did was borrow bits of music he had already written, both sacred and secular, and incorporate them into the new work. This was standard operating procedure for many Baroque composers, and many believe Bach did so as a way of highlighting his favorite works.”
These types of works are called ‘parody’ compositions because sections ‘parody’ others. Adds Haselböck, “Bach also used sections from Lutheran hymns in the Oratorio. And since these hymns were very well-known in Bach’s day, I can’t help but think that the parishioners in the church at that first performance sang right along, as we often do when a Christmas concert includes carols we’ve loved since we were children.”
The Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734/1735. But, despite Bach’s hopes that it would be performed annually, over a century passed before its next performance in 1857.
“This is one of the reasons I am so excited that Musica Angelica is performing the Christmas Oratorio,” says Laura Spino, Managing Director. “There simply aren’t that many opportunities for music lovers to hear it performed live in the Los Angeles area by a world class orchestra like Musica Angelica.”
Joining Musica Angelica for this performance of the Christmas Oratorio are members of the renowned choral group, The Concord Ensemble. “Excellent, impeccable,” raved the Washington Post while the Herald Times described them as “painters in music, builders of noble sonorities. “Clearly a group to watch out for,” added Goldberg Magazine.
“It will be an absolutely magical evening,” promises Spino. “A true gift for those looking to ‘mix it up’ musically as they celebrate the holiday season. When it comes to great choral works, there is more to Christmas than Messiah. And we’re proud to be presenting one of the most magnificent, joyous, and inspiring masterworks.”
Musica Angelica will also help give hope and strength to children with life-threatening illnesses when it donates 25% of ticket sales on December 8 to benefit Make-A-Wish of Greater Los Angeles®.
“ ‘Tis the season to be giving,” says Spino. “This year, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary season. And we would not be where we are today, were it not for the generosity of so many members of our community. I can’t think of a better way for us to say thank you for that support – support that was instrumental in making our wishes come true – than to give back to Make-A- Wish of Greater Los Angeles.”
Tickets for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are reasonably priced, ranging from $25 to $55/person, with seniors receiving a 10% discount and students a special price of only $15 with valid identification. In addition, members of KUSC and SCEMS receive $10 off single ticket prices. Subscription discounts are also available, with first time subscribers receiving 25% off single ticket prices when they buy a package of three or more concerts. For more information, to purchase a subscription, or to order tickets, visit www.musicaangelica.org or call 310.458.4504.
AT&T Center Theater is located just east of Staples Center, at 1150 South Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, 90015. First United Methodist Church is located at 1008 11th Street in Santa Monica, 90402.