Anonymous donor sets stage for rarely heard ‘Christmas Oratorio’ at Choral Arts Philadelphia

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 Musicians rehearse for a rare performance of Bach's

Musicians rehearse for a rare performance of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," to be performed New Year's Eve at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

If you thought Christmas music was over for 2016, put your Santa hat back on: Choral Arts Philadelphia has one concert more concert up its sleeve.

The classical choir will perform Bach’s entire “Christmas Oratorio” with orchestral accompaniment on New Year’s Eve at the Episcopal Cathedral in University City.

The Christmas Oratorio is not heard very often because it’s tough to pull off. It was written in 1734 as six, stand-alone cantatas, meant to be performed during different religious services over the course of the 12 days of Christmas.

“That means, practically speaking, each cantata has a completely different orchestration,” said Choral Arts artistic director Matthew Glandorf. “So you have flutes, for example, for Cantata 1, 2, and 3, and they disappear. Horns in Cantata 4, and not again. You’ve got trumpets on Cantata 1, 3, and 6. Four oboists appear on the second cantata.

“Trying to get all of these musicians in the same room at the same time is really the challenge.”

The logistics are particularly difficult for a relatively small organization like Choral Arts Philadelphia; many of whose singers are volunteers.

It performed the oratorio two years ago as a gamble, which paid off. One listener in 2014 said it “brought tears to my eyes. It was ethereal.”

That patron, who does not wish to be identified, is on the board of other Philadelphia arts organizations and had given small amounts to Choral Arts in the past, in the range of a few hundred dollars. His experience with the oratorio spurred him to give $10,000 as a matching donation, enough to fund exactly one performance.

“My wish is that it would become a signature event for Choral Arts,” he said.

The pieces will be played on traditional baroque instruments, including the natural hunting horn, and — on Dec 31 — close to their historically accurate time frames: the cantatas were meant to be performed on Christmas Day;  the annunciation of the shepherds (Dec. 26); the adoration of the shepherds (Dec. 27); the circumcision of Jesus (Jan. 1); the journey of the Magi (this year, also Jan. 1); and the Epiphany (Jan. 6).

“We discovered to our great joy two years ago, that this seemed to fulfill a real need,” said Glandorf. “It was something outside the typical ‘Nutcrackers’ and ‘Messiahs,’ and a lovely time to get people’s attention.”

The three-hour concert, with nearly 100 performers, will pause in the middle for a dinner break. Glandorf scheduled the concert for 4 p.m., early enough for people to get to their New Years Eve parties afterwards.

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