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Magnificat Baroque Ensemble goes back for the future

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What’s old is new: Magnificat Baroque Ensemble
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Magnificat Baroque Ensemble launches its 20th anniversary season with a recreation of the program that put it on the map two decades ago: the Christmas Vespers of the Dresden Court Chapel in 1660. Presented by the San Francisco Early Music Society, which serendipitously celebrates its 35th anniversary, the concert centers on Heinrich Schütz’s glorious “Christmas Story (Weihnachtshistorie).”

“It’s the first real masterpiece of 17th century Christmas narrative expressed as operatic oratorio,” says Warren Stewart, Magnificat’s longtime director. “Schütz was 75 when he wrote it, was the grand old man of the baroque.”

Despite the composer’s age, the work is surprisingly sensual and extremely colorful. In some ways it resembles a traditional church Christmas pageant, with angels, shepherds, High Priests and the Evangelist each represented by different instrumental colors. Schütz’s mastery of instrumental combinations, however, and the novelty of his harmonies elevate the music far above the ordinary.

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The Evangelist, who serves as storyteller, has a particularly evocative vocal line. In bringing back German baritone Martin Hummel, who sang the role at Magnificat’s first concert, Stewart is confident he has the best Schütz Evangelist in the world.

“Hummel sang the Evangelist on René Jacobs’ famous recording,” he says. “He’s perfectly matched for the part. Even if you don’t speak German, you understand every word because he sings with such conviction and presence.”

The performance will be sung entirely by men. The “two terrific” male sopranos in the mix conform to the expectations of the Dresden Court, who favored high voices.

Suporting them are The Whole Noyse, a superb Bay Area-based early music wind ensemble, and the Sex Chordae Consort of Viols.

Because not all the music used at the Dresden Court’s 1660 Christmas Vespers survived, Stewart has replaced a lost Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) with another by Cavalli.

“It was in the library at Dresden,” Stewart says, “and very popular at the time. Cavalli was the most famous composer in Europe, and his Magnificat is one of the great pieces of the era. We did it in 1996, and I was afraid that we’d never get the opportunity to do the wonderful piece again.”

Not everything on the program is a repeat. Thanks to the Internet, we will hear perhaps the first performance since 1660 of Vincenzo Albrici’s Psalm 122: Laetatus sum.

“This concert brings together people, institutions and composers that have had a tremendous impact on what Magnificat has become in the two decades since we began,” Stewart says. “Much of what made us what we are, and that has built such a palpable sense of community, will be on the stage.”

IF YOU GO

Magnificat Baroque Ensemble

Presented by San Francisco Early Music Society

Where: St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell St., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18

Tickets: $12 to $35

Contact: (510) 528-1725, www.sfems.org

Note: Performances also are at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 at First United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley.

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