Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Brimstone and...

December 17, 2006

Bernard Labadie
I’m not usually a big Christmas person. Oh sure I participate in the obligatory gift giving and the like but I’m not really one to get caught up in any holiday spirit business. This, of course, is a particular challenge this time of year when theaters around town tend to be inundated with family-pleasing holiday fare calculated to produce what passes for joy and wonder these days. LA is by no means immune to this phenomenon and outside of the umpteen Messiah’s and Nutcracker’s, we’ve got the previously mentioned Hansel und Gretel and are dealing with the nightly mess Slava and his clowns generate over at Royce Hall.

The LA Phil is doing their darndest to deliver a little something for everyone with sing-alongs, the Klezmatics, Chanticleer, the Escovedo Family Latino Holiday show, and the list goes on and on. I usually avoid much of this, but even I have an exception to this general rule – namely the music of J.S. Bach. This weekend Bernard Labadie and his vocal ensemble La Chapelle de Québec were back in town in an all Bach program playing some works not usually associated with Christmas, but nevertheless pieces he made a strong case for in this context. The program included a motet Jesu, mein Freud BWV 227 and a cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191 as well as the Magnificat BWV 223a. The Magnificat, as Labadie pointed out from the stage, was in fact originally presented on Bach's first Christmas day as Cantor in Leipzig in 1723. This first version of the work included segments specifically concerning Christmas that were later removed in a revision where Bach transposed the work down a half-tone from E-flat to D. Labadie chose to perform a hybrid version, still in D, but with the Christmas segments left intact.

Now I must admit I have a very high opinion of Labadie in no small part for a wonderful Lucio Silla he led with Susan Graham at Santa Fe Opera in 2005. Labadie and his group were in LA just two years ago with a stripped down Messiah and this weekend's program again delivered a stirring performance that did the unthinkable for me - generate some sentiment that one might actually call Christmas spirit in some sense. I think this is in large part due to Labadie's approach which, as he noted, has a lot to do with the context in which Bach produced this music. Namely, that in the Lutheran faith of Bach’s time, Christmas was not solely about joy and birth but dealt in equal amount with death and sorrow. The Christmas holiday in this vision already represents a duality where both birth and death are contained and foretold in the events of the story. Suffering is already present and therefore sorrowful and almost funerary settings can stand side by side in the music with no sense of irony. Labadie pointed out other examples of this from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But the strongest case was the music itself, which brought a kind of dark beauty to a season often overloaded with too much treacle.

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