No Clichés 

Tired of the Messiah? Magnificat has an alternative Christmas music concert for you.

Asked what motivates his organization to perform rare 17th-century vocal music, Warren Stewart, artistic director of the Bay Area ensemble Magnificat, replies: "The music is magical. What sustains us is the uplifting, moving effect it seems to have on our audiences."

Thanks to an enthusiastic following and spurred on by rave reviews, Magnificat prides itself on offering what Stewart calls "a Christmas alternative of absolutely great music." Rather than churn out yet another Messiah -- which receives performances this month from three major organizations -- Magnificat's Saturday night performance in Berkeley's First Congregational Church features two rarely heard Christmas cantatas by Allessandro Stradella (1639-1682), plus a concerto written in the Concerto Grosso style he originated. For information, call 415-979-4500.

The evening's featured work, "Ah! Troppo e ver," is a 35-minute cantata that reflects on the events of the nativity. The first voice heard is that of Lucifer, who interrupts the overture, exclaiming from hell that he's greatly disturbed because the Son of God has been born. "Stradella's Christmas Cantata has all the qualities of a mini-opera," enthuses Stewart, "with different characters singing arias and recitative. The work includes parts for the devil, an angel, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and one of the shepherds. The music is very colorful, highlighting the character's various moods."

Magnificat will also perform a shorter nativity cantata, "Si apra al riso" for soprano, alto, bass, and two violins. The soloists will assume the roles of the three shepherds who have just heard the news of Christ's birth. One is very eager to be the first to announce the news, while the others join in reflection on the birth of Christ. Punctuating the proceedings is what Stewart praises as "beautiful string writing for the violins."

The ensemble's first two CD releases in a projected six-set series have generated a debut next March in New York's prestigious Early Music Series. Meanwhile, the ensemble is forging a new path, anticipating a 2003-2004 premiere of a setting of the Heart Sutra written especially for them by the great Terry Riley.

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