Robertson leads The Thirteen in offbeat baroque Christmas concert

Sat Dec 17, 2022 at 12:57 pm

Matthew Robertson conducted The Thirteen Friday night at the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes. Photo: Todd Stubbs

Competition is fierce in December holiday concerts. Some ensembles perform the same pieces every year, and others program historical rarities. 

The Thirteen, directed by Matthew Robertson, took a path somewhere between the two. In their winter concert, heard Friday night at the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes, the chamber choir performed three familiar baroque pieces, none of which is really intended solely for Christmas, in a sanctuary partially lit by candles.

When the performances are as assured and varied as these were, no one is likely to care about programming choices. The orchestra of historical instrument players opened the evening with an elegant rendition of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1.

With most of the string players choosing to stand, the orchestra gave the slow part of the Overture a lilting grace, followed by a slightly frenetic fast section. In the subsequent series of dances, the oboes did not join the violins on some of the repeats, adding some timbral variety. A large continuo section added more colors to the texture, in combinations of organ, harpsichord, and theorbo, with bassoon often strengthening the sustaining instruments.

The oboes, played by Meg Owens and Fatma Daglar, took center stage often in the second of each set of paired dances. Especially fine were the second Gavotte and the second Bourrée, the latter featuring solely the oboes and bassoon. Often these softer second dances sparkled with more interesting continuo harmonic fill from Dan Swenberg’s theorbo.

Vivaldi composed his famous Gloria for the all-female forces under his direction at Venice’s Pio Ospedale della Pietà. Although it begins with the line sung by the angels at the birth of Christ, the Gloria is a text of the Ordinary, appropriate for any feast, not just Christmas. (An excellent recent recording released this year by Les Arts Florissants puts the piece at the center of a reconstructed Venetian Mass.) Vivaldi often pointed his Gloria to a specific feast with an introduzione motet, as he did once for the Pietà’s patronal feast, the Visitation.

The choir, augmented to 21 singers, sang with consummate balance, phrasing, and breath support, even when Robertson took tempos that emphasized speed over intelligibility, as in the opening movement. His forces were much more effective when not pressed by the pacing, as in the gorgeous “Et in terra” section, with the suspension clashes shaped for maximum enjoyment of the dissonance.

Notable solo work came especially from soprano Molly Quinn in the “Domine Deus” movement, with plangent oboe solos from Meg Owens. The highlight proved to be mezzo-soprano Rhianna Cockrell, luscious on the pleading phrases of “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” accompanied by hushed cello, organ, and theorbo alone, with intense choral interjections. Countertenor Doug Dodson brought a gleaming edge to the solo line in the “Qui sedes” movement.

For the concluding work, Bach’s Magnificat,  musicians have the option of using the composer’s original version of the work (with four Christmas hymns interpolated into it for use during his first Christmas season in Leipzig) or Bach’s more familiar later revision of the score, which was performed in this concert.

The larger number of sopranos helped make Bach’s five-part texture (SSATB) more luxurious in this rendition, even though the pacing of the opening movement was unnecessarily hasty. Soprano Molly Quinn had another pleasing turn in the “Quia respexit,” with serene oboe d’amore playing as well. Christopher Talbott plied his dignified bass-baritone to the “Quia fecit” movement, and tenor Kyle Tomlin and the gentle countertenor Patrick Dailey gave a soft sheen to “Et misericordia.”

Tenor Oliver Mercer’s “Deposuit” bristled with indignant rage, and Rhianna Cockrell’s pleading mezzo merged in charming ways with the pair of mellow traverso flutes, played by Amy Guitry and Brittany Salkill, in “Esurientes.” Sopranos Jessica Beebe and Crossley Hawn plus countertenor Cody Pastor Bowers floated the trio “Suscepit Israel.” Robertson brought the evening to a triumphant close with a brilliantly paced “Sicut locutus” and “Gloria Patri,” crowned by the three rustic natural trumpets and booming timpani.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday and can also be viewed online.

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