Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bach in his Proper Setting

Having used my article to defend Ragnar Bohlin's abridging of the performance of the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 of Johann Sebastian Bach for this week's subscription concert at Davies Symphony Hall by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, I found myself thinking that the six cantatas that comprise this work really deserved to be performed in their entirety. However, I still stand by my position that it would be unreasonable to perform them back-to-back in a single event that would probably run about three hours in length. Rather, each cantata deserves to be performed on the day for which it was composed, thus making for an ongoing celebration that covers the twelve days of Christmas. Needless to say, this is not particularly realistic when all of your soloists are visiting artists (in this case three from Europe and one from Canada). To be true to Bach, you need an ensemble more like the "repertory company" with which he worked at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas's Lutheran Church) in Leipzig.

The closest I have come to such a setting has been the Bach Vespers series of services at New York's Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Park West (a short walk from Lincoln Center). This series is now in its 42nd season. When I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, I was not only audience but also an enthusiastic donor to their cause. This was my best opportunity to hear Bach in his proper context; and, on the basis of some of the popular anecdotes in circulation, the performances were probably better than any that Bach himself had supervised. (One of these concerts also happened to be the setting in which I met my wife-to-be; but that is another story!) I have sometimes wondered how many other cities have a church that has tried to present Bach the same way. Having not (yet?) visited Leipzig, I do not know whether or not the Thomaskirche has tried to establish this practice. I gather that the philanthropy of Henry S. Drinker did not extend to encouraging it at a church in Philadelphia, since Drinker seems to have preferred performances in his own house. San Francisco has choral groups that focus on Bach, but none of them have the resources to keep up with his schedule based on the church calendar. For all I know the practice is sustained only in New York because that is the one location that can provide both support and audience. For all the virtues of that setting, Bach deserves more attention.

No comments: