The Weckmann Project and Musica Nuova were joint recipients of a 2014 Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research grant, which supported our presentation of two staged productions of Heinrich Schutz’s Christmas Oratorio.
Nearly 300 audience members joined us on December 6 and 7, 2014 at Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Heights, where we had also rehearsed for four weeks leading to the performances. Turnout and reception surpassed expectations – audience members came out on a cold and rainy night, and families joined us on a sunny afternoon. We achieved our goals artistically, laid the groundwork for repeat performances, and possibly developed a new model for children’s concerts.
Our concept to tell the Christmas story through staging proved successful: the long recitatives that narrate the tale were brought to life by characters (in costumes inspired by Breughel) acting out the scenes described: the annunciation surprised Mary out of the audience, the birth of Jesus took place on stage, the three wise men “searched” for the child down the center aisle, and angels sang from balconies. Jeffrey Grossman led The Weckmann Project and Parthenia in a lively, emotional, and historically-informed interpretation that highlighted the deeply varied instrumental colors that Schütz specifies in the score. Audience members noted that they were especially grateful to hear the oratorio, which is rarely performed because of the scope of instruments required.
Our second performance was free to children under 10, which was an experiment and a risk: early music is rarely offered to young people, and it seems incompatible to invite them to listen alongside devoted early music fans. Nonetheless, the experiment worked. Adults without children were understanding of some squirming in the aisles, and even young children paid attention for the full performance. The event differed from the evening concert only in the following ways: a very simple Baroque instrument coloring book was offered, children could meet the instruments afterwards, and perhaps most crucially, we told families that they could make a little noise or move around if needed, and that getting bored or lost is part of the listening experience. The concept proved that even young children can enjoy “serious” music in a traditional concert setting.
Collaboration between The Weckmann Project and Musica Nuova was a seamless, productive, and transparent arrangement. Each ensemble not only complemented the other artistically, but equally shared fundraising, finances, administration, and social media efforts. We are already at work to plan repeat performances in Boston and New York in December, with a long-term goal of making this work a new annual tradition. Our work together was apparently an unusual case for our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, which featured our collaboration on their blog. We hope our positive experience of working together will inspire other artist-led projects to do the same.