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Updated Monday, December 3, 2012 at 09:36 AM

At St. James Cathedral, Pacific MusicWorks puts on brilliant Bach | Classical review

By John Sutherland
Special to The Seattle Times

If Pacific MusicWorks ever does a concert at St. James Cathedral, just go. Don't even stop to look at what's on the program. Actually, see them anywhere. And actually, do look at the program, because it's bound to be brilliant.

The program for Saturday night's concert, the second in PMW's current season, was called "Angels and Shepherds," but it might have been called "Bach and Before." This intriguing collection of cantatas and other music for Advent and Christmas gave us not only some of the best of J.S. Bach, but some enlightening context from his predecessors in German Baroque music.

One benefit of playing in the Seattle cathedral is that it is similar to the setting (acoustically, visually, spiritually) that Bach's audience experienced when this music was first performed. Another benefit is that it proves one of the more delightful theories of early-music performance in practice today: that these works were played with relatively small ensembles, even the chorale sections of the cantatas. A dozen instrumentalists and a quartet of singers produce plenty of sound in this lively space, and it is a more pleasingly shaped sound than the blast of a large choir and orchestra.

This was demonstrated in the first chorus of the opening work, the Cantata BWV 61, written by Bach for the first Sunday in Advent (which would, appropriately, start a few hours after this concert). With music director Stephen Stubbs conducting, mostly from the lutenist's chair, the quartet of soprano Yulia Van Doren, alto Laura Pudwell, tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Jesse Blumberg filled the air with auditory wonder, supported by the brilliant collection of instrumentalists.

This cantata and the concluding one on the program, BWV 36 (also written for Advent), acted as large bookends of Bach, with the middle filled mostly with delights from earlier years.

The first of those gems was a setting of "Wachet Auf" ("Sleepers Awake") by Franz Tunder for soprano and instruments. If you had just heard it on the radio, you would think this was from Bach himself.

Special mention must go to baroque oboists Debra Nagy and Curtis Foster, who brought to life the brilliantly introverted charm of these instruments in several pieces.

The second half of the program began with settings of famous carols by Michael Praetorius, including In Dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing) and "Es ist ein Ros" ("Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming") and concluded with the Bach Cantata 36, which featured a delicate duet with Van Doren and violinist Tekla Cunningham. The final chorale, "Lob sei Gott," put a hearty harmonic exclamation point on the entire affair, and launched us into the new liturgical season.


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