John Frayne: BACH Christmas concert excellent as usual

John Frayne: BACH Christmas concert excellent as usual

On Dec. 15, The Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana, with music director Chester Alwes on the podium, gave their traditional Baroque Christmas concert at Holy Cross Church in Champaign.

The concert began, as usual, with the appearance of the University Laboratory High School Madrigals, directed by Richard Murphy. This group of students, attired in Elizabethan dress, was larger than usual: 17 singers in all. They sang a selection of carols, including "Go Lovely rose," "Masters in the Hall," "The Turtle dove," Wassail," and the familiar "Angels We Have Heard on High."

The evocative moods ranged from the sweet and tender lullabies to the rousing "Wassail." Some of the selections offered were from a collection of carols, edited (2003) by Nicholas Temperley, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. The madrigal singers furnished a gentle and touching entry into the concert.

The major work on the first part of the concert was Johann Sebastian Bach's masterful "Magnificat," a setting of the words in St. Luke's Gospel of the Virgin Mary, expressing her wonder at her taking part in the incarnation of Jesus. This work had been performed by the BACH chorus on Dec. 12 at the holiday concert by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.

On that occasion, the chorus was part of a performance led by new CUSO conductor Steven Alltop. On Sunday night, Alwes, of course, was the conductor. A different set of soloists sang at each concert — with the exception of bass Ricardo Sepulveda, who sang at both. In the program for the Dec. 12 concert, Alltop mentioned his collaboration with BACH.

There are two versions of the "Magnificat": a Christmas version, in E-flat major, performed in Leipzig in 1723, with four interpolated sections related to Christmas; and a version in the key of D, performed eight years later, on the Feast of the Visitation, without the Christmas interpolations.

Alltop performed the D major version without the interpolations, and Alwes performed the same version, but with the interpolations, which include the famous Martin Luther carol, "Vom Himmel hoch."

Such a sign of collegial cooperation between maestros Alltop and Alwes should be greeted with joy, and the Bach "Magnificat" is so wonderful that it can stand repeated performances, but with all this said, I can only ask why perform it in these two venues? Did the repetition reduce or increase the attractiveness of the second performance? On Sunday, Holy Cross Church did not seem entirely full, especially on the side aisles, but the snow and ice surely kept some people at home and hearth.

I found it fascinating to hear the BACH chorus a few nights earlier in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Previously I had heard the group only in churches, and mainly at Holy Cross.

The sound of the chorus there had greater impact than in the vast reaches of the FGH, and the BACH orchestra, particularly the trumpets and drums, produced more resounding climaxes than the CUSO musicians at the earlier performance.

As at the Thursday concert, in the 10th section of the "Magnificat," the Central Illinois Children's Chorus, under the direction of Andrea Solya, lent a youthful enthusiasm to that passage.

The soloists stood with the chorus, and sang with them, when not delivering their solo parts. In order of performing, they were Rebecca Glass-Wilson, soprano, Alexandra Nowakowski, soprano, Sepulveda, bass, Christopher Holman, counter-tenor, Benjamin Krumreig, tenor, and Audrey Vallance, soprano. All in all, the singing of the soloists was on a high level of accomplishment, and the whole chorus performed with its customary excellence.

The second part of the concert offered "A Festival of Christmas Carols," all of which were arranged by Alwes. These carols, in French, English and Latin, covered a range wider in period than the selection usually offered at the BACH Baroque Christmas concerts.

The Alwes arrangements, all of which have been published, included "Il est n, le divin enfant," "Pat-a-pan," "Coventry Carol," "Resonet in Laudibus," and "Personet Hodie."

I noted that there were somewhat fewer segments to be sung by us in the audience. Were we that bad last year? That said, the alternation of singing from the BACH chorus on the altar and the Uni Madrigals in the choir loft lent pleasing variety to the sound mix.

Alwes' arrangements were expert, tastefully mixing modern harmonies in the instrumental accompaniments. His models in orchestration seemed to resemble that of the Gustav Holst/Ralph Vaughan Williams school.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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