The Christmas concert season in New Orleans comes to a close this evening in the Ursuline Convent’s St. Mary’s Church in the French Quarter, when Lyrica Baroque, a five-member chamber music group, performs a free hour-long concert bookended by two soprano arias from George Friderich Handel’s “Messiah.”
But instead of the familiar “Hallelujah!” chorus, concertgoers will hear pieces written by lesser-known composers of the baroque period, in addition to Handel and the other equally famous baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Among the works to be performed are pieces by French baroque composers Jean-Marie Leclair, Joseph Nicolas Pancrace-Royer and Marin Marais and Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, plus two cantatas from the Bach canon.
Despite the name, Lyrica Baroque in recent years has explored many eras. The group's Christmas concert last year spanned a broad musical range from the late Renaissance period up to the 21st century, including pieces that were more jazz than classical.
“This year we are going back to our roots,” said Jaren Atherholt, the group’s oboist and co-founder. “We’re doing exclusively baroque music; Christmas-y baroque music.”
Performing with the group will be Emmanuel Arakélian, guest artist at St. Louis Cathedral, on harpsichord. The other Lyrica Baroque members are Daniel Lelchuk on cello, Joseph Meyer on violin, Benjamin Atherholt on bassoon and soprano Sarah Jane McMahon on vocals.
Atherholt said the concert will be dedicated to the memory of local culture aficionado and patron Marlene Jaffe, who died in September. Arakélian will be performing on her harpsichord.
The concert will lead with Handel’s “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” and end with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Both arias are from “Messiah” and will be sung by McMahon, backed by the full ensemble.
The opening number will be followed by “Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 9” in four movements by Leclair performed as a violin and harpsichord duet. Two pieces from Bach’s “Hunting Cantata” featuring the soprano follow that, and Pancrace-Royer’s “La Marche des Scythes,” Zelenka’s “Sonata No. 3” and Marais’ “La Folia” round out the program.
“These all are basically within the baroque period,” Lelchuk explained. “We’ve been doing so many things from different time periods at our concerts recently that we felt it would be nice to do something that had a common theme running through it. Joe (Meyer), who does our programming, felt that we needed to explore more deeply some of the sacred baroque repertoire.
“A large part of the inspiration for this is the setting in the beautiful St. Mary’s Convent,” Lelchuk added. “To play all this wonderful music by Bach and Handel and these other great composers there just seemed to make sense.”
In recent years, chamber music from the baroque, classical and modern eras has been enjoying a revival. According to Lelchuk, all of Lyrica Baroque’s paid admission concerts last season were sold out.
“Our audience base has been growing so rapidly, and it’s a testament to the love and passion the city of New Orleans has for classical music,” Lelchuk said. “We’re seeing so many people — especially young people — in the audience who have never been to classical music concerts before, and they’re saying, ‘Where’s this been my whole life?’”
With that in mind, the next step for Lyrica Baroque is community outreach. Members envision bringing programs into local schools to introduce young people to the world of chamber and other classical music.
Lyrica Baroque also is co-sponsoring, with New Orleans Friends of Music, the NOLA ChamberFest next spring. This event will coincide with a performance by The Harlem Quartet on April 7 and will include master classes and a chamber competition for four age categories.
“I think that’s the most important thing we’re trying to do: Bring variety and the highest level of chamber music-making to New Orleans in a regular concert series,” Lelchuk said. “And to have our audience be those who go to the opera and the symphony and also develop new audiences, which we do — that’s really thrilling.”
A Musical Christmas
An evening of Christmas-themed Baroque music presented by the Lyrica Baroque chamber ensemble
WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 22
WHERE: St. Mary’s Church, Ursuline Convent
1100 Chartres St., New Orleans
Free. Donations welcomed.