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WATERLOO (IA) -- Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra patrons were treated to a concert from the ghosts of Christmas past on Dec. 8. the orchestra, led by Music Director Jason Weinberger performed selections parishioners of the (Lutheran) Church of St. Thomas, in Leipzig, Germany would have heard in the mid-18th century, under the direction of the church’s kappelmeister (music director), none other than Johann Sebastian Bach.

There were two identical concerts (I attended and am reviewing the first) in the renovated Brown Derby Ballroom in downtown Waterloo. These concerts, in a lavishly redone venue, give listeners a chance to hear live music “up close,” in conditions similar to what concertgoers would have experienced in the smaller halls, churches, or “public houses” that hosted such events in Europe’s Baroque era. Two packed houses for the concerts prove that Sebastian Bach, “the old wig,” as one of his sons called him, can still draw a crowd.

Bach had a tough job in Leipzig. In addition to composing for and performing musical events in the church, he was in charge of another musical organization in town, the Collegium Musicum, and also had to ride herd on the no doubt unruly St. Thomas Boys’ Choir. Thus his church works were generally composed at white heat, often partially borrowed from music of his own or others, and thrown together with minimal rehearsal. Miraculously, those pieces that survived are monuments to the Baroque art.

The most numerous of Bach’s church works are known as cantatas — multi-movement pieces for chorus, vocal and sometimes instrumental soloists —whoever was available, with a small orchestral accompaniment. These cantatas illustrated in music the events of the liturgical year. Bach took on the monumental task of attempting three entire cycles of such compositions— incredibly, one per week. Some 209 of these have survived; many are lost. The orchestra on Saturday did a series of excerpts from these cantata,  in this case from those relating to the Advent and Christmas season, which were written in the vernacular German.

I’m not going to list each work, with its rather esoteric designation. A small core of players, with Weinberger conducting from the harpsichord, presented masterfully a varied selection of these offerings, as they might have been heard 280 years ago.

A number of superb soloists burnished the occasion — primarily soprano Jennifer Larson and tenor Brian Pfaltzgraff,  both on the Wartburg College faculty in Waverly. Widely respected vocalists, both Larson and Pfaltzgraff exhibited beautiful voices, masterful interpretation and the daunting technical skills necessary to master Bach’s vocal demands. Also prominent were flutist Claudia Anderson, who overcame Bach’s reluctance to allow for breathing spots for wind players with her usual skill; the three oboists —Heather Armstrong, Rebecca Kimpton and Heather Peyton, who alternated prominent parts with notable precision and intonation; violinists Anita Tucker and Robert Espe, cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and Weinberger himself at the harpsichord.

Kudos to the orchestra, in particular bassoonist Kayla Bellamy and the oboes, for a praiseworthy feat of endurance — Bach’s lines just don’t stop. The performers are never identified in these concerts — in addition (pardon any omissions here), the orchestra featured Therese Slatter, Bethany Washington, Andrew Gentzsch and Mary Bellone, violins; Julia Bullard and Sally Malcolm, violas; and Alexander Pershounin, bass.

As is common with concerts “in the round,” there were a few balance issues. The first appearance of the two vocalists found them facing each other on opposite sides of the orchestra. I was sitting behind the back of the tenor, and thus heard a predominance of the soprano facing me, and I’m sure that the audience on the other side experienced the situation in reverse. When the two next appeared together, standing close to each other and facing the same direction, the problem was solved, and was in any case, minor.

The evening ended with a complete multi-movement work, which later, with the addition of trumpets, became known as Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4. Consisting of an “overture” and a customary suite of dances, the work was performed with a catching boisterousness that brought the evening to a lively close.

Bach’s cantatas are somewhat lost in the shuffle. overwhelmed by iconic works such as the keyboard creations, the Brandenburg Concertos and the B Minor Mass. One can only wonder if the pious burghers of St. Thomas Church knew what they were getting each week in their pews. Weinberger’s idea for a concert of Bach’s own Christmas music from his own church was an inspired one, and masterfully realized.

Thanks are due to our sponsors, who made Saturday’s concerts possible: an anonymous donor, TriCounty Child and Family, KWay Radio Group, The Gallagher Family Foundation in memory of Edward and Catherine Gallagher, Vaughn and Judy Griffith, Vicki and Geoffrey Grimes, Sally Malcom, Jim Walsh of the Brown Derby Ballroom, Iowa Public Radio and the McElroy Trust.

If you haven’t heard one of the concerts in this intimate hall, I urge you to do so. The atmosphere is informal, and you can buy drinks. The orchestra next appears in Gallagher-Bluedorn on Feb. 16, with an exciting selection of music with a romantic Valentine’s Day theme.

Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the School of Music at the University of Northern Iowa, and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the wcfsymphony.

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