A Cornucopia of Choral Christmas Carols
A review by Marc Shulgold
Call me a glutton if you wish, but I can’t seem to stay away from the glorious music that re-emerges each December. No, not all those silly ditties about Santa and his reindeer. It’s songs of the True Meaning of the season that never fail to touch me. There is a gentleness and simplicity in so many of the choral works, new and old, that eloquently remind us of a long-ago story about an infant in a manger who would one day change the world. That event, so rudely converted into an excuse for a year-end buying spree, is still observed by amateur and professional choirs in churches visited by those who embrace the sanctity of the season and the wondrous beauty of the music celebrating it. There are oodles of such events – I caught three of them in one weekend recently – and it’s not too late for you to set aside your shopping and attend one. You’ll be glad you did.
“A Cambridge Christmas” presented by the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir
Timothy Krueger’s two dozen singers have consistently impressed their listeners over the years, thanks to their artistic director’s superb taste and his ability to lure warm, focused performances from this finely polished ensemble. On Friday, December 12 in Montview Presbyterian Church, the group offered the first of three performances built around the traditions of English choral music. Respect was paid to the training programs at King’s, Gonville & Caius, Trinity and St. John’s Colleges through a well-chosen selection of works by composers of the present day and of centuries past. Krueger wisely utilized the spacious warmth of Montview by having his choir begin singing at the rear of the sanctuary, processing down its aisles, performing upfront and finally, seamlessly, relocating to the choir loft. Highlights were plentiful, but particularly effective was St. Martin’s reading of Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985) with its strange parallel harmonies and those unexpected two-note accents provided by organist Ralph Valentine. Adding to this engaging program (repeated Friday, December 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Denver’s Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral) were a handful of audience sing-alongs.
“December Reflections” presented by Ars Nova Singers
An unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon bathed in sunshine may not be the ideal setting for a Christmas program, but Thomas Edward Morgan and his magnificent Ars Nova Singers made the best of it, offering the last of four performances in spacious Bethany Lutheran Church on December 13. The 40-member ensemble sang with stunning perfection, effortlessly traveling from the 14th and 15th Centuries to the present day, aided by the fine playing of Christine Jennings (flute) and Matthew Dane (viola). The late Colorado composer Jean Berger’s remarkable Magnificat was a stand-out, spotlighting soprano Emma Vawter’s extraordinary solo work. There were plenty of discoveries for Ars Nova’s fans, who’ve grown familiar with Morgan’s penchant for the unknown and the unexpected. Witness the clever use of whistling in Andrzej Koszewski’s Pastorale: Jesu parvule and contemporary folk singer Terre Roche’s charming tale of a reluctant shepherd, Star of Wonder. As with so many of the outstanding choral groups who receive much-needed support from SCFD funds, Ars Nova may be labeled a Tier III organization, but it is in the top tier of America’s choirs.
“A Ceremony of Carols” presented by Kantorei
It seems a shame that the 50-voice Kantorei presented its demanding Christmas concert only twice this season. The second program was heard on Saturday, December 13, in Montview Presbyterian Church before an enormous crowd of enthusiastic listeners. Artistic director Joel M. Rinsema, in his first season heading the group, led a solid account of Britten’s enthralling Ceremony of Carols, a medley of early English songs of the season. Enhanced by harpist Janet Harriman’s superb accompaniment, Kantorei easily captured the purity and sincerity of this too-rarely heard choral masterpiece. In five carols arranged – sometimes over-arranged – by the young Norwegian Ola Gjeilo, the choir conveyed the timeless beauty of the holiday’s most beloved melodies. Rinsema honored the recent tragic passing of Stephen Paulus by ending the program with three of the talented American composer’s carol arrangements (aided by Harriman and oboist Maureen Farkash). For this listener, the evening’s true stand-out came with the encore: a spirited rendition of the full choral setting of Franz Beibl’s sumptuous Ave Maria, written in 1964 but seemingly sailing through time from centuries long past.