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Bach & The Baroque Ensemble takes final bow with Bach's Christmas Oratorio

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Sometimes you save the best for last. Such is the case with Don Franklin, a musicologist at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Music who specializes in the Baroque period, particularly the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Teaching both undergrad and graduate courses in music history, Franklin's interest in Bach was so fervent that he wanted to pass it along to others. So in 1991, he founded the Bach & The Baroque Ensemble in Pittsburgh.

"I used to do a lot of harpsichord playing -- I lived in Germany for a while and concertized there," he recalls. "But I hoped to start a collegium for university students, just like Bach did in Leipzig back in 1720. When our choral director, John Goldsmith, and I both realized we loved Bach cantatas, he said, 'Let's do it -- you get the orchestra and I'll prepare the singers.'"

Performing annually in late October and early March, the ensemble has realized numerous large-scale vocal/instrumental works such as Bach's Passion and parts of his Mass in B Minor. Another organization passionate about early music is the Renaissance and Baroque Society, which presents B&B's rendition of the Christmas Oratorio this weekend -- the one major Bach work they hadn't accomplished yet.

In Northern Europe, this cycle of six cantatas appears with the same frequency during the Yuletide season as Handel's Messiah does in America. "Often, they're done in a single concert, though, which gets to be awfully long and not so effective," says Franklin. "So we're doing the first three -- which have to do with Christmas -- on Saturday, and the second three -- which involve the Epiphany and the arrival of the Magi -- on Sunday afternoon." (At press time, the Sat., Dec. 15, concert is sold out, but tickets are still available for Sun., Dec. 16).

Performing the Oratorio in Heinz Chapel will lend the event a more sacred gravitas. As will the large group of performers needed to pull it off -- a total of 21, composed of period-instrument virtuosos from around the East Coast, including players of the baroque trumpet and the oboes d'amore and da caccia.

But it's also Franklin's last hurrah -- he's dissolving B&B after the night's notes fade. "We wanted to have a celebratory work as our finale with all of these extra instruments," he says. "So we decided to bring the series to a close and chose this as our final work."

Savor the flavor of this particular Oratorio for a long time to come -- early music enthusiasts might never hear its like again in Pittsburgh.

Bach & The Baroque's Christmas Oratorio. 8 p.m. Sat. Dec. 15 (sold out) and 3 p.m. Sun. Dec. 16. Heinz Chapel, Forbes and Bellefield avenues, Oakland. $15-30 ($10 students). 412-361-2048. www.rbsp.org

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