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INTERVIEW: Matthias Maute on Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and 80 Concerts/Year (Bach Society of Minnesota)

Conductor Matthias Maute leads the Bach Society of Minnesota in a trio of concerts this weekend. Photo by Bill Blackstone.

There are many claimants to the title of “the most German composer”, but there is one item on which all can agree: if such a spiritual lineage exists, the line to being this composer runs through Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Although Bach’s music fell out of style in the decades immediately after his death, this was due in no small part to many of the music manuscripts being sequestered in private music collections like that of Felix Mendelssohn’s family. After the 19th-century Bach revival movement made these compositions available in print, orchestras and choirs – and solo instrumentalists – have performed his work around the world.

One of those lost-and-now-found-again works is Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium, or Christmas Oratorio. Originally completed and performed in 1734, the Christmas Oratorio was not performed again until 1857, when a coalescing German nation was looking for symbols of a shared identity. It has since become a recording staple, a regular feature of December performances, and – this weekend – part of the Bach Society of Minnesota’s concert offerings. Over the next three days, BSoM will perform the work in Rochester, Saint Paul, and Corcoran, Minnesota.

The Arts Reader’s Basil Considine spoke with BSoM artistic director Matthias Maute about conducting this work and balancing the rest of his busy performing career.


Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was originally written in six parts for performance on separate feast days. How are you dividing the program in performance? 

We take 3 cantatas from that cycle (1, 5, 6) and add a Christmas cantata, BWV 91.

Are you performing the same cantatas for your upcoming Christmas Oratorio concerts with Ensemble Caprice?

No. Variety is the secret to being always highly motivated and inspired on stage.

This piece is performed with widely varying instrumental and choral ensemble sizes. What size ensembles will the Bach Society of Minnesota be employing and why? 

Our orchestra has roughly the size of what Bach’s orchestra would have been (20 musicians), while our choir is double the size with 16 singers, plus 4 soloists. The choruses are very powerful with this increased size of the choir.

Will you be using period or modern instruments? 

Period.

How many times have you conducted this piece? 

Sixteen times.

You’re the artistic director or co-artistic director of five ensembles. How far in advance do you do season planning to make the disparate schedules work?

Two years.

Maute on the recorder. Photo by Ragnar Müller-Wille.

Besides your work as a conductor, you’ve also performed on flute and recorder. Do your current activities leave you much time to perform as an instrumentalist? 

This year, I am performing in 80 concerts, 30 of which as conductor.

How many rehearsals do you have with the Bach Society for this series of performances?

Five rehearsals.

What is a favorite musical moment in the selected program and why?

The opening choir of Cantata 1 and the opening and final chorus of Cantata 6. They all have in common to project us into a universe of sounds that touches us by its overwhelming richness and inventiveness. D Major at its best!

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017. He was previously the Regional Governor for the National Opera Association's North Central Region.
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