This New Years’ Eve, I have the honor of performing the evangelist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Choral Arts Philadelphia, under the direction of Matthew Glandorf. I am thrilled to take on this role, and I am grateful to Matt and Choral Arts for this opportunity. This will be my first performance of one of the crown jewels of tenor repertoire.
For a young tenor, learning the evangelist roles from Bach’s major vocal works is a rite of passage. The endeavor of preparing an evangelist role is one full of tradition and lineage. Both of my teachers, James Taylor and Kurt Hansen, are first-rate evangelists and storytellers. When we consider their teachers, then those teachers’ teachers, and so on, we come to a startling realization: only about six generations of evangelists separate today’s young singers from Bach’s own original tenor. The result is a sort of oral history passed down from Bach’s time which still informs how we portray the evangelist today.
Part of my preparation has been soaking in this oral history, and then marrying it to my own study of the theology, musical rhetoric, and theatrical impulses that power Bach’s evangelists.
For singers in this role, the responsibility is to deliver the story of Jesus Christ: the literal words of the gospels. In both the passions and the oratorios, the tale rests squarely on the evangelist’s shoulders. The role requires a command of language and rhetoric that can guide the listener emotionally through the narrative. If done well, the evangelist delivers the listener to the doorstep of the arias, chorales, and choruses that inwardly reflect on the story being told.
In my view, storytelling of the scope and magnitude of the Christmas Oratorio can be deeply moving -- even to audiences who are hundreds of years removed from Bach’s original listeners in 18th century Leipzig. In our tumultuous times, the story told over these six cantatas contains a powerful message of joy and a renewed opportunity for humankind to orient itself towards compassion and love.
My favorite scene in the entire oratorio is the three wise-men's defiance of King Herod: upon seeing the newborn Jesus, they decide to return to their home by another way, foiling Herod’s fearful attempt to kill Jesus. Here, we see three humans make a choice to defend a vulnerable, innocent family from a powerful political figure who wishes to protect his own power. For believers and nonbelievers alike, this story is relevant and instructive in today’s world.
So too, I think, is the joy that Bach finds in the nativity story. In the Christmas Oratorio, far more so than in Bach’s two passions, the evangelist’s narrative lines sweep and soar in the high part of the range -- like the seraphim visiting the shepherds, or the dazzling star above Bethlehem. There is an unadulterated optimism about Bach’s setting -- for him, this story is the beginning of humankind’s journey towards redemption.
Near the beginning of the Oratorio, one of the chorales asks:
Wie soll ich dich empfangen
Und wie begegn' ich dir?
How shall I embrace you,
and how will I receive you?
I can think of no better way to receive the new year than with the glorious music of the Christmas Oratorio, and with its message of renewed commitment to joy and love.
about the Author
Praised for his “dazzling clarity of tone and eloquence of phrasing”, James Reese is an avid ensemble, chamber, and solo musician. He currently studies with James Taylor at Yale University's Institute of Sacred Music as a member of the Voxtet. James frequently works with such prominent local and nationally nationally renowned vocal ensembles as The Crossing (Grammy 2016 Nominee), Chicago Bach Project, The Thirteen, Ampersand, and Music of the Baroque. An advocate for new music, James is a founding member of Philadelphia vocal sextet Variant 6. He has premiered works by Ted Hearne, John Luther Adams, Judd Greenstein, Joel Puckett, Gabriel Jackson, and others. James is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, where he studied with Kurt R. Hansen, Alan Darling, and Donald Nally. Learn more at jamesreesemusic.com.