by Michael Caruso

When Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Bach Collegium perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” Saturday, Dec. 31, in the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia, four local singers will be taking prominent, solo parts in the concert. They are tenor James Reese, soprano Ulrike Shapiro, soprano Rebecca Myers, and alto Jennifer Smith.

Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” is not actually an oratorio, at all – at least not in the sense of Handel’s “Messiah” or Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” Whereas Handel and Mendelssohn composed both their scores as non-staged operas, Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” was formed in the years after his death by linking the six Christmastide cantatas that Bach composed for St. Thomas’ Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1734.

Matthew Glandorf, artistic director of Choral Arts, will conduct the choir and the baroque period instrumentalists. Cantatas I, II & III will be performed from 4 to 5:30 p.m.; there will be an hour long intermission during which food and drink concessions will be available; Cantatas IV, V & VI will be performed from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

James Reese will sing the part of the Evangelist, proclaiming the texts drawn from the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. John. Originally from South Philadelphia and then Swarthmore, he is currently a student at Yale University and a member of The Crossing.

Chestnut Hiller Ulrike Shapiro is the managing director of Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Chestnut Hiller Rebecca Myers is also a longtime member of The Crossing and maintains a voice studio in Chestnut Hill. Jennifer Smith lives in West. Mt. Airy.

The Episcopal Cathedral is located at 38th & Chestnut Streets in West Philadelphia. Tickets are priced from $10 to $30 and can be purchased online at www.choralarts.com or by calling 267-240-2586.

PIFFARO on THE HILL

Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, presented “La Nochebuena” (The Good Night, in this particular case, Christmas Eve), Saturday, Dec. 17, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Joined by instrumental colleagues from the Dark Horse Consort and local soprano Jessica Beebe, and heard by an audience that very nearly filled the Church, the program traced the musical celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

The highlighted composer this time around was Tomas Luis de Victoria, the Spanish master of the High Renaissance. His sacred choral music rivals that of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, often credited with having saved choral music in the Roman Catholic Mass at the Council of Trent. The principal work was Victoria’s Missa: “Alma redemptoris mater” (Mother of the Redeemer). It was the perfect choice: no other composer in the Spanish-speaking ever wrote more beautiful sacred choral music and this particular setting of the Mass testifies to the seminal part played in the Advent and Christmas celebrations of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Alongside the Mass, the program featured such marvelous works by Victoria as “O magnum mysterium” (O great mystery) and “Gaude Maria Virgo” (Rejoice oh Virgin Mary).

Surrounding and enhancing these seminal works by Victoria was a host of other examples of the era, all of which came together to form a splendidly varied and deeply moving quilt that revealed the impressive musical fabric of the Spanish-speaking world throughout the Renaissance.

Beebe either sang the soprano line alone of the choral works, with members of Piffaro and the Dark Horse Consort taking all the other vocal lines, or was joined by Piffaro’s Grant Herreid singing the tenor parts. It was a technique that worked most of the time – the principal exception being the “Gloria” in the Mass. But with or without Herreid’s aid, Beebe sang with consummate interpretive artistry and commanding vocal technique. She sang with effortless projection over a broad dynamic range that was always placed within the context of stylistic authenticity.

Although I don’t recall ever having heard Piffaro and the Dark Horse Consort play together, they did so seamlessly Saturday evening. Their tart tones, pungent phrases and spiky rhythms filled the Church and recalled a bygone but not forgotten era.

THE CROSSING @ CHRISTMAS

For the first time in its decade-plus history, the Grammy Award-nominated choir, The Crossing, performed its annual Christmas concert somewhere other than their home base, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Presented under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in the holiday slot once owned by Anonymous Four, Donald Nally led The Crossing Friday, Dec. 16, in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square.

The change of venue made a noticeable change in hearing The Crossing. For one thing, it was good that the concert took place in Holy Trinity. A thousand people were there, packing its majestic Victorian-Romanesque space. That’s about three times the number of people who can sit comfortably in Chestnut Hill Presbyterian. As a result, the bracing edge that often characterizes the sound of The Crossing in the contemporary repertoire that it its musical turf was here more mellow and rounded than usual. The individual contrapuntal lines that often stand out in blazing relief in Chestnut Hill were more smoothly blended on Rittenhouse Square.

The evening’s principal work was Kevin Puts’ “To Touch the Sky,” composed in 2012 for the vocal ensemble Conspirare. Puts, a faculty member at my alma mater, the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University, composed the highly successful opera, “Silent Night,” performed in February of 2013 by Opera Philadelphia in the Academy of Music.

“To Touch the Sky” is a high-flying, deeply emotional, densely contrapuntal and overwhelmingly lyrical piece of contemporary music. Puts seems to have taken to heart Ralph Vaughan Williams’ famous advice to another young, contemporary composer – “If a tune should ever come to mind, don’t hesitate to write it down.” Many tunes have obviously come to Puts’ mind and he has wonderfully written them down. The music of “To Touch the Sky” soars to dizzying spiritual heights and plunges profoundly into the heart and soul.

As in every other score on the program, Nally and The Crossing gave “To Touch the Sky” a stellar reading.

...