Why on earth have we not sung Josef Rheinberger’s Christmas cantata before? Read Wholenote Magazine and you will stand in thankful awe of the zillion performances of Handel’s Messiah in Toronto; yet I mourn the 50 odd Christmases that have passed without any knowledge of Rheinberger’s wonderful work, “The Star of Bethlehem.” Pax Christi Chorale is polishing up our performances of this piece for next weekend at Grace Church on-the-Hill, and the more we sing it, the more we appreciate this masterwork of high romantic art: a work that paints the intimacy of the nativity, romanticized pastoral scenes, and the grandeur of an astronomical phenomenon leading the Magi on their quest through the desert. It is not only a musical story full of drama and emotion, but also a superbly crafted work from the steady hand of a composer well versed in writing both organ fugues and superb choral pieces. And since it has “Erwartung” as the first movement, it has to be cool – and there’s even a Hallelujah chorus!
Pax Christi Chorale and family have had a long and happy relationship with Josef Rheinberger, starting a decade ago when we recorded “Bleib bei uns” and sang it pretty much by memory as an encore piece. We moved on to explore a set of four Latin motets which were equally rewarding to sing, with soaring, rangy melodies beautifully written for every voice part with rich harmonic textures and stimulating imitative counterpoint. In my own home, the Rheinberger affair got serious when Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill announced that he was going to embark upon a project to play all of the Rheinberger organ sonatas in various organ recital series across Toronto. He did get through quite a few of them. St. James Cathedral, Yorkminster Park Baptist and Metropolitan United are the places that still support weekly organ recitals, free to the public, and he played on all of them. It was also handy that Bruce could get away with using Rheinberger’s historic photo as his own publicity shot. The likeness is fairly striking don’t you think?
We’ll be singing “The Star of Bethlehem” in an arrangement for organ and strings by Roger Bergs, the very talented and hard-working organist of Knox Church, Toronto and composer on faculty at the University of Toronto. Roger’s arrangement is extremely clever and will work very well in our intimate performance venue. Our new youth choir director, Jeffrey Newberry, will be bringing along a host of highschool music students to enhance the first part of the programme – a wonderful way to connect with the next generation of choral singers. Our soloists Bethany Horst and Michael Robert-Broder will be absolutely stunning.
So, it’s official. Rheinberger is the new Handel.