For a man who was admired by Bach, Heinrich Schütz doesn't get as much love as he might. Born in 1585, he studied with Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi and became the most important German composer of the 17th century. His 500-plus works include the first German-language opera (now lost), madrigals, motets, a quartet of Passion narratives, a requiem, and a "Christmas Story." Emmanuel Music has been a staunch Schütz advocate, but local performances are hardly legion.
This season, however, his "Christmas Story" is coming to town, staged by Boston's Weckmann Project and New York's Musica Nuova. It will be presented Dec. 26, which is appropriate, since most of the story takes place after the birth of Jesus. The cast will include Jason McStoots as the Evangelist, Paul Guttry as King Herod, and Clare McNamara as the Angel Gabriel. There will be two performances, at 4 and 8 p.m.; children under 10 will be admitted free to the matinee, and are invited to a Baroque-instrument petting zoo afterward.
How the two ensembles got together is a story in itself. Both Amanda Keil, the artistic director of Musica Nuova, and Liza Malamut, the artistic director of the Weckmann Project, started out as brass players. Both attended Boston University, though not at the same time.
Keil's instrument was the French horn, but, seeking a broader range of repertoire, she switched to singing. For her graduate recital at BU, she strung together Italian Baroque songs to suggest a story — "I've always had a slant for the dramatic," she says. Keil founded Musica Nuova here in Boston, but eventually moved it to New York, where her family is from.
When Keil got the idea to do the Schütz oratorio, she realized she would need a 17th-century band — which is where the Weckmann Project comes in. Malamut was a trombone major at Eastman School of Music, but when she found an old sackbut (ancestor to the trombone) in a school closet, she says, "the writing was on the wall." A participant in Boston Baroque, the Boston Early Music Festival, and the Green Mountain Project, she says that the Weckmann Project came about when "seven of us got together in a room to read the 10 sonatas by Matthias Weckmann, just all in a row — which was crazy, because they're incredibly difficult."
Musica Nuova and the Weckmann Project first staged "The Christmas Story" last December in Brooklyn. (For these performances, they'll be joined by the Long & Away viol consort, since Schütz's score calls for viols as well as violins, recorders, cornetti, sackbuts, a dulcian, and a continuo section.) "We thought it would be exciting to look at what came before 'Messiah,'" says Malamut. "Gorgeous music, a lot of elements of Renaissance music, and then you're just starting to see elements of the Baroque oratorio that would come later."
As for the staging, Keil says, "We try to take what's written in the text and write it large, bring it to life in our bodies. My approach has been not to impose some other idea on it, but to take what is there and think about what it might look like." In eight short sections — Schütz calls them "intermedia" — characters enact the story's events. But it's the Evangelist, Malamut says, who "knits the piece together."
McStoots has never sung the part before, but he's performed Schütz since his college days at Duke, much of it with Emmanuel Music. "My favorite line from the Gospel stories of Jesus's birth, after all the shepherds have come and gone, is 'And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart,'" he says. "Schütz does this beautiful turn to the flat key and sets it lower and quieter, an odd harmonic shift from when the shepherds were praising God in sharps. That's just one little example of how he gives you moments to really lean into the drama of the text."
Because "The Christmas Story" takes only 40 minutes, the program will start with a Gabrieli canzona, and then Schütz motets that introduce the oratorio. The program concludes with "Il dulci jubilio" by Michael Praetorius.
"We're taking a risk performing Dec. 26," Keil acknowledges. But, Malamut says, "We're hoping to have something families can go to when they're all together, and they want to do something for the holidays."
Schütz: "The Christmas Story"
Performed by the Weckmann Project and Musica Nuova.
At First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Dec. 26.
Tickets: $15-$25. 917-412-6472, www.theweckmannproject.org