This year, EMV’s Festive Cantatas features some of the most popular Christmas music of Germany in the 18th century by Johann Kuhnau and J.S. Bach. Kuhnau was cantor in the Thomaskirche of Leipzig before Bach and in addition to being a remarkable composer, he was a lawyer and a linguist who wrote a satirical novel, Der musicalische Quacksalber (1700). Only recently has Kuhnau’s church music been given a bit of the attention it deserves. Kuhnau’s cantata “Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (How brightly shines the morning star) is filled with moments of lyric beauty and expertly-rendered Italianate ritornelli echoed in the solo vocal lines. The quality of this work is an excellent argument for exploring more deeply the musical culture that preceded and influenced J.S. Bach. This cantata contains some of the earliest orchestral writing for natural horns and this may have inspired Bach to do the same in his cantata by the same name as well as in Cantata V of the Christmas Oratorio. The Christmas Oratorio was originally written as six cantatas for six different days between Christmas and the feast of Epiphany.
For this performance of Cantatas IV and V from the Christmas Oratorio, five Canadian soloists of international renown join the musicians of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Alexander Weimann.
This concert is generously supported by the Drance Family, Bryan & Gail Atkins, and Dr. Katherine E. Paton all in honour of Stephen & Betty Drance
Online Version & Broadcasts
- This concert was broadcast on CBC Radio on Dec 19 from 3-4 pm as well as on the EBU as a part of EuroRadio’s Christmas Music Day.
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248, Part V
Cantata “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 Part IV
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To read or download and print the full programme click here.
In the early eighteenth century, Leipzig was the heart of Lutheran church music. Members of the town’s two principal churches could expect to hear impressive, sophisticated compositions almost every Sunday and feast day. As a Leipzig pastor recorded in 1738, major celebrations like Christmas attracted the townspeople “in masses”; congregants were “much more attentive than usual” on such occasion.
Despite attempts in the Lutheran world to curb the carnivalesque revels inherited from the Catholic Middle Ages, Christmas in Leipzig was a time of great festivity. Attentive churchgoers no doubt noticed the brilliant sounds of trumpets, horns and timpani that marked occasions of special splendour.
Central to Leipzig’s musical culture was the Thomasschule, a boarding school attached to St. Thomas’s Church. For centuries, the school’s Kantors had been renowned composers and scholars; by the time Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) served as Thomaskantor, the post was the most respectable of its kind. Its duties, however, were sometimes troublesome. Bach, keen to focus on music, quickly arranged to pay another teacher to take care of his Latin teaching obligations. (Kuhnau, a polymath and skilled linguist, fulfilled all his teaching responsibilities admirably.) Both composers had to wrestle with the town council to keep up musical standards in the school and churches.
Bach, notoriously, was the council’s third choice for Thomaskantor in 1722. By contrast, Kuhnau was promptly elected to the post when his own predecessor, Johann Schelle, died in 1701. A promising student and musician from an early age, Kuhnau had studied in Dresden and later in nearby Zittau. By the time he settled in Leipzig in 1682, he was an adept organist, an experienced composer, and a master of Italian and French. Kuhnau went on to be highly successful as a lawyer, as a musician, and as a man of letters: he published well-loved collections of keyboard music, penned a perceptive satirical novel, composed for the church, and explored branches of knowledge ranging from ancient languages to mathematics.
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern takes its name from a chorale by Philipp Nicolai, one of the great Lutheran hymn-writers of the sixteenth century. The Thomaskantor’s musical duties were closely tied to the turnings of the liturgical year, and the presence of a familiar chorale-tune would have signalled to the congregation the character of the day’s celebration. In fact, Kuhnau seems to have introduced the practice, common in Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, of closing cantatas with a chorale.
Kuhnau’s opening chorus, a gracious setting of the Christmas hymn’s first verse, draws added warmth from the innovative addition of two natural horns. The coming movements show the elder Thomaskantor’s mastery of the forms and techniques later inherited by Bach. Kuhnau’s setting of Isaiah 9:6 begins as a carefree choral fugue before mounting to a mighty homophonic shout of praise. The lovely tenor aria that follows is an intimate expression of wonder, with two obbligato violins weaving beautiful lines above the voice. A florid soprano duet brings in the closing chorale verse, setting off this tuneful finale’s call to music: “Pluck the strings on the harp and let the sweet music resound full of joy!”
Bach turned to the composition of oratorios for only a very short period of his life. The Christmas Oratorio was written as six separate cantatas to be heard as a sequence between Christmas (1734) and Epiphany (1735). Unlike Bach’s usual church cantatas, the oratorio follows a coherent plot, whose events are punctuated and interpreted by arias and choruses. (In this regard, and in the telltale setting of biblical narrative as tenor recitative, the oratorio may remind listeners of Bach’s two surviving Passions.)
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is full of outstanding music, not all of which was originally composed for it. In a virtuoso display of parody technique—the repurposing of already composed material—Bach mined his own previous work for many of the oratorio’s movements, working closely with his (unknown) librettist to make sure that music and text fit together perfectly. This was a practical strategy in Bach’s day because it allowed music written for unique occasions to be recast in a more durable form.
Parts IV and V of the oratorio are rich in music both old and new. Intended for New Year’s Day, Part IV borrows several movements from a secular cantata, Hercules at the Crossroads (BWV 213), written for the birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony. Like Kuhnau’s Christmas cantata, Part IV adds to the regular string complement a pair of horns, which shine in the lilting introductory chorus (modified from BWV 213). The soprano aria “Flöẞt, mein Heiland” is an especially interesting example of compositional recycling. In the original cantata, it presents a youthful Hercules asking “Echo” for advice in his decision between Vice and Virtue. In the Christmas Oratorio, this echo aria becomes a prayer, the repetitions of “Nein!” and “Ja!” helping the speaker move from uncertainty to affirmation (an oboe, meanwhile, is in on the echoing game). The whole cantata dwells on the comfort offered by the name of the newborn saviour—a name lovingly repeated in the closing chorale.
Part V is the most lightly scored section of the Christmas Oratorio. Presumably, Bach’s hard-working brass players were ready for a break, especially since, in 1735, the first Sunday after New Year fell early on January 2nd. The strings provide ample energy with trumpet-like fanfare figures in the first chorus, while two oboes d’amore, conventionally associated with love, suggest the intimacy between God and the heart of the believer. Instead of using the day’s gospel, Bach and his librettist decided to base the cantata on the coming of the wise men and the central image of the Christmas star. This part of the oratorio has a definite sense of drama, with the wise men’s questions set in quick-moving chorus and King Herod’s fright expressed in dissonant recitative. Throughout, Bach orchestrates a dialogue between traditional texts, collective meditation and personal feeling crafted to be both illuminating and moving.
- Connor Page
Myriam Leblanc, Soprano
A graduate of McGill University, Myriam Leblanc obtained a master’s degree in choral conducting direction from the University of Sherbrooke. She was a First Prize winner and People’s choice Award winner at the Orchestre symphonique de Trois-Rivières Competition, a Jeune Ambassadrice Lyrique in 2014 (Prix Québec-Bavière), Audience Choice Award winner at the Canadian Opera Company Centre Stage Competition, Third Prize winner at the Ottawa Choral Society New Discoveries contest, holder of the Excellence grant given annually by l’Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, First Prize winner in the Mathieu-Duguay Early Music Competition at the 2017 Lamèque International Baroque Music Festival. She has been working in the world of music for few years. Leblanc is recognized for the purity of her tone, a flexible and warm voice and her mastery of both technique and musical expressiveness.
In 2016, she made her debut with the Opéra de Montréal in the role of the High Priestess in Verdi’s Aida. La Presse music critic Caroline Rodgers described her voice as one of “rare beauty”. Her more recent performances (2017-2018) include Milica in Sokolovic’s Svadba with Opéra de Montréal, Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen with Opéra de Québec and concerts with conductors such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Kent Nagano, Matthias Maute and Jonathan Cohen. In 2018-2019, she sang a Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, the soprano solos on Handel’s Messiah with Ensemble Caprice, the Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.2 “Lobgesang” with l’Orchestre Metropolitain under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s direction. Recently, she was a soloist with Les Violons du Roy under Jonathan Cohen’s direction.
Suzie LeBlanc, Soprano
Suzie LeBlanc’s extensive international performing career includes recitals and performances with orchestras, opera companies, and early, traditional, and new music ensembles. She also received great acclaim as the protagonist in Rodrique Jean’s 2008 film Lost Song at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Ms. LeBlanc began her career as a performer of early repertoire and lived in Europe between 1987 and 1999 where she performed with leading ensembles in main stages and festivals.
She returned to Canada in the year 2000 and recorded Mozart songs with Yannick Nézet-Seguin, as well as early works by Messiaen and Acadian songs for the ATMA label. In 2011, she commissioned Canadian compositions set to the poetry of Pulitzer-Prize recipient Elizabeth Bishop for the album “I am in need of music” which won an ECMA for Best Classical Recording.
Inspired by the migrations of her Acadian ancestors, she co-created mouvance, a multimedia performance with composer Jerôme Blais which sets the words of 13 contemporary Acadian poets to Blais’s original music.
An enthusiastic educator, Suzie LeBlanc was an early vocal music coach and Artistic Director of Cappella Antica at McGill University from 2017 to 2020. She is now the Artistic and Executive Director of Early Music Vancouver.
Nicholas Burns, countertenor
Born in Vancouver British-Columbia, countertenor Nicholas Burns has been described as possessing a “thrilling voice” and past performances have been described as a “revelation” (Opera Canada). As an artist at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, Nicholas performed Bach cantatas under Philippe Herreweghe. He has appeared with Early Music Vancouver for several iterations of the Christmas Vespers and summer Bach Festivals. Nicholas has also appeared with the American Bach Soloists, Arion Baroque Orchestra, Tafelmusik, The Theatre of Early Music, le Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, L’Harmonie des saisons, and l’Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil. On the opera stage, Nicholas has performed in numerous Handel operas including the title role in Giulio Cesare, Bertarido in Rodelinda, and the world premiere of a new opera, L’Orangeraie. Upcoming engagements include performances of Bach cantatas at the BachFest Leipzig, and a programme of Monteverdi with the American Bach Soloists. Aside from singing, Nicholas is an accomplished bagpiper, having won the World Pipe Band Championships in 2012.
Colin Balzer, tenor
Canadian lyric tenor Colin Balzer’s North American engagements include recitals at New York’s Frick Collection and on the Philadelphia Chamber Music series; concerts with the Portland, New Jersey, Utah, Victoria, Ann Arbor, Québec, Atlanta, and Indianapolis Symphonies; Early Music Vancouver; Tafelmusik and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Les Violons du Roy; the National and Calgary Philharmonics; Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Musica Sacra and the Oratorio Society of New York at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In addition, he is regularly featured in opera productions at the Boston Early Music Festival.
Guest soloist appearances abroad include work with Collegium Vocale Gent led by Philippe Herreweghe, Fundacao OSESP Orchestra and Louis Langrée, Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski, Rotterdam Philharmonic led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Akademie für alte Musik under Marcus Creed, and the RIAS Kammerchor, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Radio Kamer Filharmonie, Estonian Chamber Choir, and Musik Podium Stuttgart. Operatic forays include the role of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Bolshoi and in Aix-en-Provence and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera in Aix and Luxembourg.
Particularly esteemed as a recitalist, he has been welcomed at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Britten Festival in Aldeburgh, the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival, the Wratislavia Cantans in Poland, and at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. Recordings to date include Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch and Eisler and Henze song anthologies. Mr. Balzer holds the rare distinction of earning the Gold Medal at the Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau with the highest score in 25 years. Born in British Columbia, he received his formal musical training at the University of British Columbia with David Meek and with Edith Wiens at the Hochschule für Musik Nürnberg, Augsburg.
Tyler Duncan, baritone
Sought-after baritone Tyler Duncan appears regularly on major concert stages around the world. Recent critics have called his performances “eloquent,” “charismatic,” and “stunning,” and praised his “refined, burnished voice” and “impeccable phrasing.” Tyler has recently appeared in concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and at the Wigmore Hall.
Also accomplished on the opera stage, Tyler has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Prince Yamadori in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly under Karel Chichon, among many other Met Opera roles. Other recent roles include Morales in Bizet’s Carmen under Seiji Ozawa, and appearances in the Spoleto Festival as the Speaker in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Duncan is also passionate about new opera; recent roles include Raymond in Nic Gotham’s Nigredo Hotel with City Opera Vancouver, and in the world premiere of Jonathan Berger’s Leonardo at New York’s 92nd Street Y.
Mr. Duncan also performs as a duo with pianist Erika Switzer, celebrating songs from the Romantic period as well as the work of living composers. Together the pair have premiered dozens of new compositions.
Tyler’s recordings include the newly released album English Songs à la française with Erika Switzer, the Juno Award winning Vaughan-Williams Serenade to Music with Peter Ounjian and the Toronto Symphony, Earthquakes and Islands: an album of songs by Andrew Staniland with texts by Robin Richardson, the title role in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis with Boston Early Music Festival, J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion with the Portland Baroque Orchestra, Purcell works and Carissimi’s Jephte with Les Voix Baroque, and a DVD of Handel’s Messiah with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. His singing has been recognized internationally with numerous awards, including Grammy and Juno nominations and prizes from the Naumburg, London’s Wigmore Hall, and Munich’s ARD competitions.
Originally from British Columbia, Canada, Mr. Duncan resides in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley. www.tylerduncan.ca
Alexander Weimann, dir.
Alexander Weimann is one of the most sought-after ensemble directors, soloists, and chamber music partners of his generation. After traveling the world with ensembles like Tragicomedia, and as frequent guest with Cantus Cölln, the Freiburger Barockorchester, Gesualdo Consort and Tafelmusik, he now focuses on his activities as Music Director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in Vancouver, Music Director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and regular guest conductor of ensembles including the Victoria Symphony, Symphony Nova Scotia, Arion Baroque Orchestra in Montreal and the Portland Baroque Orchestra.
Weimann was born in 1965 in Munich, where he studied the organ, church music, musicology (with a summa con laude thesis on Bach’s secco recitatives), theatre, mediæval Latin, and jazz piano, supported by a variety of federal scholarships. From 1990 to 1995, Weimann taught music theory, improvisation, and Jazz at the Munich Musikhochschule. Since 1998, he has been giving master classes in harpsichord and historical performance practice at institutions such as Lunds University in Malmö and the Bremen Musikhochschule, and at North American universities such as The University of California in Berkeley, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, McGill University, Université de Montréal, and Mount Allison in New Brunswick. Since 2007, he has conducted several acclaimed opera productions at the Amherst Early Music Festival. He now teaches at the University of British Columbia and directs the Baroque Orchestra Mentorship Programme there.
A multiple JUNO and GRAMMY nominee, Weimann can be heard on some 100 CDs. Highlights include an Opus and JUNO award-winning CD of Handel oratorio arias with soprano Karina Gauvin, a recording of Bach’s St. John’s Passion with Les Voix Baroques/Arion Baroque Orchestra, a JUNO nominated recording of Handel’s Orlando with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra that was also awarded a Gramophone Editor’s Choice award, and most recently, the JUNO-nominated album Nuit Blanches with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and Karina Gauvin.
Pacific Baroque Orchestra
The Pacific Baroque Orchestra (PBO) is recognized as one of Canada’s most exciting and innovative ensembles performing “early music for modern ears”. PBO brings the music of the past up to date by performing with cutting-edge style and enthusiasm. Formed in 1990, the orchestra quickly established itself as a force in Vancouver’s burgeoning music scene with the ongoing support of Early Music Vancouver.
In 2009, PBO welcomed Alexander Weimann as Artistic Director. His imaginative programming and expert leadership have drawn in many new concertgoers, and his creativity and engaging musicianship have carved out a unique and vital place in the cultural landscape of Vancouver.
PBO regularly joins forces with internationally celebrated Canadian guest artists, providing performance opportunities for Canadian musicians while exposing West Coast audiences to a spectacular variety of talent. The Orchestra has also toured BC, the northern United States and across Canada. Their 2019 East Coast Canadian tour with Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin showcased the rarely-heard opera arias of 18th century Russia, culminating in a critically acclaimed album “Nuit Blanches” released by Atma Classique. The musicians of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra have been at the core of many large-scale productions by Early Music Vancouver in recent years, including many summer festival performances led by Alexander Weimann.
Listen to Tyler Duncan’s “This Is My Music” program on CBC Music/Radio 2 and streamed here. In this live stream, Tyler talks about our upcoming concert, Festive Cantatas: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Audio of this version of Tyler Duncan’s “This Is My Music” program is also available.