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San Francisco Chronicle: “sumptuous and elegantly delivered music”

This review by Joshua Kosman was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 11, 2012.

Christmas was a good time in the 1680s’ Paris establishment of the Princess Marie de Lorraine – an occasion for celebration, contemplation and exquisite music, to judge from Sunday afternoon’s brief and wonderful concert by the early-music ensemble Magnificat.

Marie, known as Mlle. de Guise, had the great French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier as part of her household staff. And that meant that the yuletide observances – even though sung by a corps of amateurs – were being guided by one of the period’s subtlest and most inventive musical minds.

Sunday’s concert in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco – the lone offering during this hiatus year of one of the Bay Area’s most indispensable arts groups – conveyed some of the spirit of those long-ago holiday events. Charpentier’s “Christmas Pastorale” is a winning blend of spiritual reflection, narrative drama and flat-out bawdy fun, and the small ensemble – six each of singers and instrumentalists performing under the guidance of Artistic Director Warren Stewart – caught that range of tone perfectly.

Like many of Magnificat’s offerings, the Charpentier program was in part a matter of painstaking historical reconstruction. The “Christmas Pastorale” comprises a series of stand-alone scenes, which Charpentier seems to have shuffled and recombined over several years’ worth of performances.

In addition, the performances would have been studded with “noëls,” folklike Christmas carols known to the nobility and low-born alike. These ditties recast themes of the Nativity – a baby, a manger, farm animals – in comically up-to-date guise, with simple tunes that anyone could sing.

The combination of high and low, all in the service of a communal religious occasion, must have been irresistible. Certainly Sunday’s event, which ran just over an hour, boasted a wealth of sumptuous and elegantly delivered music.

Charpentier’s contributions moved fluidly from narrative recitative into arioso and back again, leavening the bare bones of the Nativity story with explorations of its sacred themes. At times the originality of his writing was startling, as in the dark, mysterious instrumental evocation of Christmas Eve, the chirpy dance of the angels or the richly ornate choral writing in the finale.

The noëls, meanwhile, offered exuberant counterpoint, with enough earthy humor to make it clear why some members of the clergy might have tried to have them suppressed.

Virtuoso singing is always a feature of Magnificat performances, and this was no exception. Soprano Clara Rottsolk, a new addition to the company, made an especially lovely and tonally vibrant contribution, but she was well matched by fellow sopranos Catherine Webster and Jennifer Paulino, and by countertenor Clifton Massey, tenor Paul Elliot and bass Peter Becker.

The instrumental forces were no less splendid. Vicki Boeckman and Louise Carslake played a variety of recorders, Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem were the tireless violinists, and John Dornenburg (viola da gamba) and Jillon Stoppels Dupree (harpsichord and organ) provided a solid tonal foundation.

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