Directed by guest conductor Paul Agnew, the NC Symphony and 62 members of the NC Master Chorale joined in a program of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel which was billed as “A Baroque Christmas.” While most of the choral music performed was indeed intended to celebrate Christmas, the evening’s two concerti were purely secular in nature.

Agnew’s conducting is straightforward, albeit curiously like an opera conductor who’s in an opera-house pit, given that most of his downbeats move upward rather than down. His tempi were on the brisk side, which caused a few problems for the chorus’ 16th-note melismas, but not for the orchestra. The woodwinds were in particularly good form, the Baroquely-all-important cello/bass lines provided a strong foundation to the whole, and the notorious high trumpet parts under control (mostly). The trumpets’ partner, the timpani, were played with small-headed wooden sticks, the better to simulate 18th-century sound; there was no attempt, however, to make this a “period instrument” performance. For reasons I could not ascertain, the Chorale did not stand at the beginning of each of its choruses, but waited until the orchestra had begun the work and played a number of measures. Generally speaking, the vocal/orchestral balance was very good, save for the Chorale’s basses, who were not quite equal partners to the instrumental bass lines. There were two keyboard instruments for the required “continuo” parts: in lieu of an organ for the choral works (Meymandi Hall having no organ, although space was allowed for one when the hall was designed), there was a synthesizer which was mercifully barely audible. There was a real harpsichord, played by outstanding harpsichordist Beverly Biggs, but its sound, too, was mostly lost before it reached my 6th-row seat.

The evening got off to a rousing start with the opening chorus from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The Chorale’s diction was excellent in their first words, “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” (“Rejoice, exult!”) and in the other loud and somewhat marcato passages, but less clear in the more quiet sections. This was followed by the lesser-known opening chorus from Bach’s Cantata 133, the highly-ornamented chorale, “Ich freue mich in dir” (“I am delighted in you”). Composed for the third day of Christmas, when Bach’s choir finally got to be home with their families, this chorus intersperses short phrases of the chorale into a florid orchestral texture, its perpetual-motion 16th-notes providing the sounds of happiness while the chorus (probably no more than eight voices, and likely only four in Bach’s time) sings their setting of a hymn which was familiar to the congregation. Well-played and well-sung, this chorus preceded the first of the concert’s three choruses from Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah. When the tenors sang their long melisma in “For unto us a child is born,” we heard the first awkward singing which resulted from the fast tempo. The voices were simply out of sync with each other. Fortunately, they recovered, and the chorus continued. The staccato, disjunct reading of “and the government shall be upon his shoulder,” obviously intended as a stark contrast to the vocal lyricism of the opening “for unto us…” passages, isn’t marked in the score to be performed that way. Agnew’s interpretation was clear, if not necessarily how Handel would have preferred it.

More Bach followed, this time the Concerto in E for violin and string orchestra. The Symphony’s Associate Concertmaster, Dovid Friedlander, was the soloist in a scintillating performance. His playing of the opening Allegro, despite Agnew’s fast tempo, was well-nigh perfect, including his intonation in the extended multiple-stop chords. In the second movement Adagio, Friedlander’s sinuous playing of Bach’s long, singing lines showed clearly how some of Bach’s music foreshadowed the era of Romantic music yet to come. The concluding Allegro assai found the perfect tempo, which Friedlander’s musicianship joined to produce a beautifully-memorable performance.

The concert’s first half concluded with three choruses from Bach’s Mass in B minor: the “Et incarnatus est,” the “Crucifixus,” and the “Et resurrexit.” The Chorale sang all three well, save for the difficult bass passage “et iterum venturus est,” which was another instance of an overly-fast tempo producing a vocal problem. Even though joined by the tenors, the basses had to accent the 1st note of every four in order to navigate their way through the long passage. Many conductors, including the late Robert Shaw, believe that this section was intended to be sung by a solo voice, thus obviating the necessity of trying to ‘herd cats” by having an entire chorus section sing this virtuoso passage.

After intermission, we heard the opening chorus (only, all four words of it!) of Bach’s Magnificat, which was followed by the second Messiah chorus, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates.” Both were played and sung beautifully, in fine and convincing performances.

Departures from well-established Baroque performance practices were curiously in evidence in the next two programmed works: in the “Pastoral Symphony” from Messiah, the harpsichord was not used, and in a chorale from the Christmas Oratorio, the instrumental and choral parts were played separately. While this latter allowed us to hear the Chorale’s unaccompanied sound, which was indeed lustrous, Bach didn’t write it to be sung a capella (or for the orchestra to play it by themselves, for that matter). Fine playing, fine singing – just not the way Bach would have ever done it.

The second Bach concerto of the evening ensued, this time the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, featuring solo parts for violin and two flutes. This work was played as chamber music, the orchestra reduced to 6 violins, two violas, two celli, and one bass. They played with no conductor; the problematic on-stage acoustics of the hall produced more than one instance where not everyone was playing at the same tempo. The three soloists, all members of the NC Symphony, were violinist Elizabeth Phelps (Principal, Violin II) and flutists Anne Whaley Laney and Mary E. Boone (respectively Principal and Assistant Principal flute). All three captured the dance-like essence of this work, reveling in its rhythmic pulses and its memorable melodic phrases. Phelps’ playing was convincingly vigorous and vivacious; Laney and Boone’s musical conversations were marked by their articulations and by the fluidity of their phrasings.

After a brief chorale excerpt from Bach’s Cantata 122, “Das neugeborne Kindelein” (“The new-born infant child”), the concert concluded with the most famous of all Handel choruses, the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah. With many in the audience standing (even though there was no King in evidence), the performers gave a fine reading of this chorus, save for the chorus’ pronunciation of the final syllable of “hallelujah,” which they sang as “halleluYUH” rather than “hallelujah.” 

Festive music for the holiday season, fine soloists, orchestra, and chorus made for a delightful December evening which was approved by long applause from the large audience. The program will be repeated on December 6th at Lee Auditorium, Pinecrest High School, Southern Pines, at 7:30 pm, and on December 9th at Memorial Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill, also at 7:30 pm. See the sidebar for details.