Getting into the Christmas spirit, with Bach

David Lau and Dorothea Vogel of the storied Gewandhaus Orchestra.
David Lau and Dorothea Vogel of the storied Gewandhaus Orchestra.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Typically, the Boston Pops is the city’s go-to orchestra for holiday cheer, celebrating all through the month of December with “Sleigh Ride,” sing-alongs, and Santa. This year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is celebrating the season as well, with J.S. Bach’s massive Christmas Oratorio, closing out the orchestra’s fall Symphony Hall residency.

Not only timely, the performances construct another bridge between Boston and Leipzig, where BSO music director Andris Nelsons leads the storied Gewandhaus Orchestra. Bach composed the six cantatas that form the oratorio while working as Kapellmeister of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, intending it for performance in church on days between Christmas and Epiphany.


The GHO has performed sacred music at St. Thomas Church for more than two centuries, resulting in a rich tradition of Bach performance. An annual Christmas Oratorio with the church’s famed boys’ choir is one longstanding custom. This December, BSO members Elita Kang and Danny Kim may be part of that, having spent the fall in Leipzig through the BSO/GHO Musician Exchange Program. GHO violinist Dorothea Vogel and violist David Lau have been playing with the BSO since opening night this October, and will perform the oratorio at Symphony Hall as the BSO holds its second annual Leipzig Week in Boston. This will be the first time Nelsons has conducted the piece.

“I love this piece so much, very deeply,” said Vogel, who estimates she’s only gone a few winters since arriving in Leipzig without playing the oratorio somewhere. “Every cantata has very special moments.”

While the BSO hasn’t performed the Christmas Oratorio in almost 70 years, in Leipzig the oratorio is a ubiquitous holiday tradition comparable to that of Handel’s “Messiah” in the United States. Vogel, a 26-year veteran of the GHO, estimated that there are often 15 to 20 performances of the oratorio in Leipzig per year, and even small church choirs will often perform one or two of its cantatas during the Christmas season.


“It’s everywhere,” said Lau over the phone. “You’ll see posters plastered all over town.”

On the phone from Leipzig, Kang expressed her hope to participate in the Christmas Oratorio performance at St. Thomas Church, but she won’t know until about two weeks prior. The GHO presents multiple programs weekly, including ballets, operas, and symphony concerts. Individual musicians’ schedules are determined by a section member called the Diensteinteiler, Kang explained, and she’s put in a request to be assigned to the oratorio.

“I’d like to have the full rotation of what’s on offer here for the musicians in this orchestra,” she said.

Lau said that in Leipzig, Bach’s music is performed in a very small ensemble configuration, compact enough to fit into the organ loft at the church. The orchestra will be reduced for the BSO’s Christmas Oratorio as well, Lau said, but not to the degree that it is in Leipzig. “I heard that there are eight [viola] players playing in Boston, as compared to when we play in Leipzig there will be three,” he said. “Just different traditions.”

At Symphony Hall, Nelsons said that the orchestra was scaled up for Boston’s performance in accordance with the size of the venue and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. “We can experiment, if it’s too much,” he said.

Bach’s works are still new conducting territory for Nelsons, who revealed that he had been deterred in the past by the “many wonderful interpretations” already out there, but now he feels “the courage that [he] didn’t have before.” He plans to focus on the music itself and the reasons why it was written, he said rather than adhering to a stricter historically-informed style.


Ensemble size for Bach isn’t the only tradition that differs between Boston’s and Leipzig’s orchestras.  At Symphony Hall, musicians can come onto the stage at will and warm up until the orchestra tunes, but in Leipzig the orchestra enters and sits down together, said Kang.

More specific to the season, Vogel said that she’s never played in any popular seasonal  performances like those of the Holiday Pops, and she’s looking forward to joining Boston’s holiday concerts this year. Also, there’s very little downtime at Christmas for musicians in Leipzig. Unlike in Boston, where the weeks leading up to Christmas are musically rich but concert halls often go dark for much of the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the GHO takes December 24th off and then performs ballets, operas, and orchestral concerts through the end of the month, winding up with another annual tradition: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for New Year’s Eve. Many Germans have that period free, said Lau, but “if you’re a musician, you’re working.” Vacation waits for the summer.

One German Christmas tradition is very familiar to Americans. The custom of decorating evergreen trees at Christmas originated in northern Germany. “I was [recently] walking in the main market square, and I could see they were installing the Christmas tree,” said Kang. The 75-foot fir will be on display at Leipzig’s famed Christmas Market, a destination for food, handicrafts and mulled wine that Bach may have visited at some point — Leipzig’s market, one of the country’s oldest, dates back to 1458. “It feels like the whole city is celebrating . . . [the market] is something that makes the whole country so very festive,” Kang said.



At Symphony Hall, Nov. 29-Dec. 1. 888-266-1200,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter 
@knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.