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Symphony's spirits soar in 'Oratorio'
Joyous alternative to Handel's 'Messiah'
Allan Ulrich, Chronicle Music Critic
Monday, December 24, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Call it the "UnMessiah," if you will, but in offering Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" over the weekend in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony came up with a dandy alternative to (not a substitute for) Handel's enduring classic.

Four debuting soloists, a 50-member complement from Vance George's Symphony Chorus and choral music specialist Helmuth Rilling imparted satisfaction beyond the seasonal in a middle-of-the-road rendering of a work that should be mentioned in the same breath as the two surviving Passions and the Mass in B Minor.

Alas, what the Symphony delivered Friday evening was only 66.6 percent of what we know as the "Christmas Oratorio" -- six cantatas cobbled together from earlier sources and presented on different days in the Lutheran festival of Christmas. Bach never intended them to be performed together, though the works do reveal a narrative line; it is not blasphemous to note that the structure of the "Christmas Oratorio" calls to mind a TV miniseries.

There is considerable precedent for excerpting the piece -- Rilling conducted Parts 1-3 and 6 -- but, with these excisions, one does lose a heap of treasurable music. For example, in the San Francisco version, the soprano is denied what may be one of Bach's greatest aria, "Flosst, mein Heiland."

Still, what remained in Davies Hall is one of the composer's more joyous effusions. The celebratory drums and brass accompanying the opening chorus set the mood, as Picander's libretto traces the story from the Nativity through the Feast of the Epiphany. The mood is one of wonder and gratitude.

Rilling epitomizes the enlightened traditionalist in this repertory. Through his work with the Gachinger Kantorei and the Collegium Stuttgart, both of which he founded, and his directorship of the Oregon Bach Festival, the conductor has made a specialty of blending scholarship and pragmatism.

So, too, here, where modern instruments, save for the crucial oboe d'amore, standard orchestra pitch and a small group of artfully arranged players, with the continuo group on the right, sufficed to clarify contrapuntal lines and focus on the exquisite obbligatos that encircle these arias. If Rilling's tempi might have struck period performance fundamentalists as a mite leisurely,

pulse rarely wavered and articulation rarely fal-


George's chorus, here arranged at the rear of the stage rather than on the terrace level above, suffered occasional moments of rawness, yet the smaller chorale groupings made much of their diminished numbers.

One might have wished for a more focused sound from David Herbert's timpani (maybe with different sticks), but the fervor of his playing was never in doubt.

Of the soloists, the young German tenor Marcus Ullmann left the most powerful impression. His evangelist fused pristine diction with wonderfully dramatic inflections in the recitatives, and his sole aria, "Nun mogt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken," achieved uncommon eloquence. San Francisco should hear more of him.

German mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion brought a luxuriant instrument and excessive sliding into notes to her significant assignments. Baritone Dietrich Henschel was in more assured voice than he displayed with the Berkeley Symphony earlier in the week, yet he still breathes in the oddest places.

Kendra Colton, recalled from the Carmel Bach Festival, found her pointed soprano disappearing in the vast reaches of Davies Hall; and she and Henschel couldn't quite get together in "Herr, dein Meitleid." Ornamentation was conspicuous by its almost complete absence.

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