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Early Music Vancouver's Bach Christmas Cantatas put new twist on an old favourite at Chan Centre

From left to right: soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzosoprano Kristina Szabo, Music Dir
EMV presented selections from Bach's Christmas Cantatas at the Chan Centre
From left to right: soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzo soprano Kristina Szabo, Music Director Steven Stubbs, tenor Zachary Finkelstein and baritone Sumner Thompson. All photos in this review are by Jan Gates

How do you breathe new life into an 11-year old tradition of performing 280-year old works? That’s the question Early Music Vancouver answered this past Sunday at a sold-out performance of Bach’s Christmas Cantatas at the Chan Centre. For the past 11 years, Early Music Vancouver has been serving up performances of the 6 cantatas comprising Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Originally composed to be performed over 6 feast days across the 2 weeks of the Christmas liturgy between Christmas Day and January 6, EMV presents a selection of Bach’s cantatas each year just before Christmas.

The performance marked the last stop on a “Cascadian” tour for the ensemble and the first time the organization took on a tour of this scope. Matthew White, who is embarking on his first full season as Early Music Vancouver’s new Artistic Director says that the partnership of presenters in the region allowed EMV to put together a high caliber early music ensemble drawing from the wealth of talent across the northwest region - from Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Vancouver Island. These types of partnerships, explains White, allow the Vancouver-based organization to tackle repertoire they weren’t able to before. While EMV has definitely taken on the Bach Christmas Oratorio before, it hasn’t quite approached them in this way. Titled “A Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project”, this is a first step in an exciting new direction for EMV, one that points to collaborations along the northwest with multiple performances in cities throughout the region.

Tenor Zachary Finkelstein as the Evangelist in EMV's presentation of the Bach Ch

The concept served the ensemble well, translating to an on-stage synergy that elevated the performance. Steven Stubbs replaced longtime Music Director Marc Destrubé for these performances and led the orchestra in a polished, vibrant and at times, somber interpretation of the cantatas. The four soloists were joined by a chorus of 8 vocal ripienists for the choral sections, and the result was truly transcendent – it was ensemble singing at its finest. My two favourite choral sections of the afternoon were Wie soll ich dich empfangen from Jauchzet, frohlocket! And Ich steh an deiner Krippen heir from Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben – both selections were achingly beautiful.  The soloists were not all evenly matched, but shone in their ensemble sections. Of particular note was tenor Zachary Finkelstein who brought a refined elegance to his interpretation of the Evangelist.  

While there was a strong D Major connection (each cantata began and ended in D Major), selecting which cantatas to perform was more of a practical choice, explains White, and had to do with instrumentation of each piece. White further explains that the inclusion of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D was intended to highlight the instrumental ensemble on their own. It was exquisitely performed, and it was a treat to hear Air on a G string played so expertly, but for my taste, it added length to the program that wasn’t necessary and it stood out as an oddity in a program of Christmas cantatas. The ensemble’s energy seemed to wane after this piece, which didn’t serve the final piece of the program, Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben, well.

So why change a good thing? When you can make it better. If the cantatas were anything to go by, it looks like we can expect exciting performances from EMV in 2015 and beyond.


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