Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'Tis The Season, Chestnuts and All

During the Arts Season which nominally runs from September to May, orchestras and chamber music groups give concerts throughout the year – not including those that offer summer performances as well – but choirs for as long as I remember present two programs a year: one around Christmas and the other in the Spring. Because of the popularity of Christmas carols (that you hear only once a year), it’s pretty unusual to hear anything non-Christmassy on these December concerts. The problem for me over the past two decades or so is that the December Concert has often become an excuse for singing nothing but arrangements of carols, classical or popular, from “Joy to the World” to “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Rarely do you hear a major work associated with the season, religious or otherwise. The biggest challenge in programing these concerts is just trying to come up with something new and different without repeating the same old/same old year in/year out. Of course there are also budgets to contend with: many “major works” would require an orchestra which would need to be paid and this is often unrealistic and prohibitive.

This season I limited myself (by choice) to two choral concerts. The first, with the Alumni Chorale of Lebanon Valley College conducted by Gregg Mauroni, offered something I thought I’d never hear in this area from an amateur group: a program of works all by living composers, American and British! As well-intentioned as it was, it also lacked a certain variety, perhaps because many of the composers were writing in very similar styles, none of them terribly modern but with sufficient harmonic spice to offend anyone who hasn’t gotten past Rachmaninoff yet. The chorale was certainly enthusiastic in their performance and the audience seemed genuinely supportive of the idea, so perhaps this is a good sign for Classical Music of a more recent vintage. The fact that none of them were really arrangements of popular Christmas carols and songs meant much of the music was unfamiliar, so this was a pretty bold concept. I thank them for not only doing it but doing it with commitment as well as enthusiasm.

When I looked at what the Susquehanna Chorale was going to perform – the last of the holiday season’s concerts – familiarity was, for me, going to be an issue. Handel’s Messiah, at least Part One, the “Christmas Portion.” Now, this is great music but over-familiarity can be daunting. On the other hand, how long has it been since I’ve heard it performed live? And performed well? For that, I suspect I’d have to go back to a Carnegie Hall performance with Richard Westenburg and Musica Sacra about 30 years ago. On the other hand, with 18 holiday seasons behind me in public radio, I had heard enough of Handel’s Messiah (the famous bits, at least) to think I could retire it for a while, not because I find it over-rated or boring, just over-done.

But here was a live performance by a group I have always enjoyed and admired – even when they do the requisite cute stuff in their Spring concerts – and if I was looking for a “major work” to hear on a Christmas program, they don’t come much more “major” than Handel’s Messiah.

I’m not sure how many years ago I’d heard them do Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicholas, about the original saint before Consumerism turned St. Nick into Santa Claus. This is a work I’d actually heard live several times – one splendid performance in a New York City cathedral back in the late-70s – and I enjoyed the Susquehanna Chorale’s performance as much for how well they sang it as for doing it at all.

Now here I was, sitting in the balcony of Camp Hill’s Trinity Lutheran Church last Sunday afternoon, listening to them sing Part One of Handel’s Messiah – speaking of chestnuts – with soloists from the chorale and a string orchestra. It filled the first part of the concert – it would be about an hour long, after all – and when it was over, I turned to N and said “remind me that I’m in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania...”

“Amateur” is a word usually used to describe a lower-level of proficiency than “professional” when really the only difference is that professionals are paid and amateurs do it for the love, not the money (“amateur,” from the Latin root “amo, amare” - to love). In many cases, given the economic rewards of being an artist, professional or otherwise, it is either do it for the love or not at all, but that’s another topic.

So here is a high level of accomplishment with the intonation, diction, clarity, articulation and precision one expects at the best professional levels. This is not easy music to sing, especially the long running 16th note passages difficult enough for a single voice but which often come out sounding like “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” with a splatter-gun effect of approximated pitches when sung by a choir. Not this time.

Though the soloists were listed as members of the chorale, I would have thought they had been brought in just for the performance. But I was assured they are, in fact, regular members of the choir. Some notable highlights in the soloists’ performances were the vocal flexibility in those 16th-note passages sung by both tenor Franklin Osenbach and bass James Hamblin, countertenor Robert Laird spinning out some of the long notes in his upper-register and the clarity, spot-on intonation and effortless high notes for both sopranos, Lynlee Copenhaver and Elizabeth Schoenfelt, especially the latter’s radiance in her aria, “Rejoice greatly.”

Watching Linda Tedford, their conductor since she founded the group in 1981, there is a minimum of fuss from the podium, an economical style that doesn’t get in the way with lots of hand gestures or physical exuberance (which would describe the way many people conduct, myself included), yet never holding anything back from the final results. The hardest work has been done in rehearsals: if they hadn’t figured it out by now, coaxing them isn’t always going to work at the concert. It may be a very “classical” approach but one that doesn’t overlook the heart of the matter – making compelling music.

All of this combined to create an over-the-rainbow moment when I couldn’t believe this was an “amateur” group in Central Pennsylvania.

There were, unfortunately, a couple of moments that brought things down to earth and the realities of a live performance anywhere. One was the absence of the bass player listed in the orchestra personnel, making the ensemble a little lighter sounding than it should have been, especially in the recitatives. The other was an unfortunate disconnect between the lone cellist and the organist that happened a few times during the aria, “Rejoice greatly,” for whatever reason (distance between the players; the organist not being able to hear the cellist; sight-lines between the conductor and the organ, placed behind the chorale; all of the above). But otherwise, I’m sitting there not only enjoying myself – an unexpected delight, given my Bah Humbug scarf – but marveling in what I’m hearing, speaking of “Rejoice greatly.”

As tired as I might be of hearing Handel’s Messiah, I could only wish they were doing it on the installment plan with Parts Two & Three in the Spring. Linda told me afterward she’ll be doing the whole oratorio in the spring with the choir at Messiah College. I suspect I will be there.

Meanwhile, best wishes for a very happy holiday, whatever you observe at this holiday-busy time of year! May your life be filled with love and joy, good things and great music throughout the coming year.

Merry Christmas,
Dr. Dick

No comments:

Post a Comment