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Musikanten Montana will give Montanans a rare opportunity to hear J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio — just in time for the closing of the traditional Christmastide season.

The Montana premiere of the Christmas Oratorio with period instruments is Jan. 18-21 in four different cities — Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, with the final performance in Helena 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21 at the Cathedral of St. Helena.

“To be back in the cathedral is a real thrill,” said Music Director Kerry Krebill, adding that it’s been a number of years since they’ve performed an Early Music Festival there and the acoustics are exceptional.

Early Music, which has steadily been growing in popularity over the last few decades, is music written prior to 1800 before standardized Classical orchestras, said Krebill.

Bach wrote the Oratorio for the Christmas feast days in 1734 in Leipzig.

Krebill’s not only thrilled to be conducting the Oratorio again, after a 30-year gap, but also to be performing it with period instruments — ones built during Bach’s time or modeled on instruments of that period.

“There’s a lot of variety with the instruments,” she said of what to expect. The audience will get to hear not only natural trumpets, but also Baroque strings, oboes, bassoon, flauti traversi, Baroque timpani and continuo organ.

“And the trumpets are fabulous. No valves. ...It’s just really fascinating, the musicians do it all with their lips.

“These instruments are so very difficult to play. It’s just awesome to watch these folks play.

“It’s so different. It’s softer. It’s gentler. I think of the strings — to me (they sound) silvery. ...It’s so clean, so pure.”

Altogether there are 17 musicians, as well as four soloists coming in from all over the country to join the local Musikanten chorus of 22.

Rather than performing the complete Oratorio, Musikanten will do three of the six cantatas  — or choral works with instrumental accompaniment — as well as opening with Bach’s Advent Cantata 61 “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland.”  

“Each cantata is its own little piece,” Krebill said, with soloists, chorale and instruments and each lasting about 20 minutes.

“It’s so joyful.”

Many of the guest artists are familiar names to those who’ve followed Musikanten’s concerts: Leading the orchestra as concertmaster is Carrie Krause, concertmaster of the Bozeman Symphony, and member of Apollo’s Fire and other world-renowned Early Music ensembles.

Organist Keith Reas and cellist Sarah Stone are the continuo players. Vocal soloists are Amanda Balestrieri (soprano), Marjorie Bunday (contralto), Daniel Hutchings (tenor), and Rob W. Tudor (baritone), and all are specialists in “music before 1800.”

They’re also experts in Bach, said Krause, who plays a Klotz violin made in 1720.

She said that one main difference the audience will likely notice between her violin and a modern one is the sound.

Her violin uses gut strings, while modern violins use metal ones.

Gut strings give the music a more intimate, “earthy sound,” she said, and are capable of “quite a wide range of colors.”

The Christmas Oratorio “is not a very common piece but these musicians are intimately familiar with it,” said Krause. “They have a great depth of experience with the language of Bach.”

The concert is a rare chance to “hear the period instruments,” which allow the music to speak. They give the music, even though its centuries old, “ a freshness which you would not expect.”

Musikanten concerts have been drawing a wider audience over the years.

When Musikanten performed at Immaculate Conception Church in Butte last year the crowd was huge — standing-room-only.

Father Patrick Beretta, the pastor of that church and also of St. Patrick’s in Butte, said the Musikanten music is of the quality “you could only find in the great cathedrals of large cities in Europe.”

“To have a level of music of that high quality coming to Butte is a huge celebration in itself. It introduces people to great, great music performed at the very top of talent.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for people to hear that beautiful performance.”

He’s also been “touched” by the music selection, he said.

“Every year Maestro Krebill selects pieces that are not just sublime, they’re incredibly inspiring.

“They are pieces of music that I think have been created as a window for the soul to rise and elevate itself.

“People of faith not only appreciate the masterful performance," he said, but “are inspired by it. It’s a transcendent experience that connects us with some kind of intimacy with the sublime.”

Beretta said he is seeing “a crisis of despair” in society today evidenced by the high rates of suicides and opioid use, but that he believes art and beauty can be “powerful healers.”

“I’ve always been a believer in the role art can play in healing the wounds in people and cultures.”

Seating for the St. Helena Cathedral concert is general admission, with a reserved section for Musikanten Angel donors ($100 and above); tickets will be available at the door — $30 general admission,  $10 students, with a family pass (maximum 5 persons) available for $75.  

Advanced sales at Birds & Beasley’s and Piccolo’s Music.  Call 442-6825 or visit www.musikantenmt.org for more information.

Other performances are all at 7:30 p.m. in the following venues:

Jan. 18,  Holy Rosary Church, Bozeman

Jan. 19, Immaculate Conception, Butte

Jan. 20, St. Francis Xavier, Missoula

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