Explosive drum tattoos are answered by fluttering winds, trumpet fanfares and a full-throttle cascade of strings. A 16-voice unison chorus commands, “Celebrate! Rejoice! Stand up and praise the day!” So begins Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” a set of six seasonal cantatas, in a spirit of overwhelming musical jubilation.
Washington Bach Consort presented the first, second, fifth and sixth of these cantatas Saturday night at National Presbyterian Church to a capacity crowd. Dana Marsh, director of the historical performance program at Indiana University Bloomington, conducted the four soloists, chorus and some 28 instrumentalists.
Marsh is the second of four guest conductors invited to work with the Consort this season, one of whom will be named successor to the group’s founder, the late Reilly Lewis. Marsh’s background is rich, spanning childhood experience as a chorister at St. Thomas Choir School in New York and Salisbury Cathedral in Britain, plus degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Oxford. He is a superb choral conductor, energetic and precise. Diction was superb throughout the program, with the German texts easily understandable. As beautifully shaped as the chorales were, it was the vitality of the choruses that carried the evening. Marsh also drew fine performances from his soloists, especially tenor Robert Petillo, whose Evangelist was artfully communicative, and mezzo Kristen Dubenion-Smith, whose characterization of Mary’s lullaby to the baby Jesus, “Sleep, my beloved, enjoy your rest,” was a high point.
Although the text is always front and center in Bach’s church music, its impact is pointed and enhanced by the composer’s imaginative instrumental accompaniments. One couldn’t help but feel that this “Christmas Oratorio” would have been even finer had more attention been paid to orchestral matters. Fine performances by violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova and trumpeter Josh Cohen notwithstanding, the winds had persistent intonation problems. In National Presbyterian’s resonant acoustic, more detached articulation and slightly quicker tempos would have done much to enliven the music’s momentum and drama.