With candles and chimes, chants and "ooohs and aaahs," the Christmas Concert of the Greenwich Choral Society immediately wrapped the audience in its wondrous annual Christmas music experience.
And an ethereal experience it was, with perennial magic in the musicianship of Director and Conductor Paul Mueller, who always seems to find cultural music, religious cantatas and masses, unusual arrangements of well-known carols and soloists that are simply transporting. From its opening Huron Indian carol to works by Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, to joyful arrangements of time-honored carols and liturgical Kyrie Eleison, the concerts are simply unique.
This one was a journey, from the annunciation through the birth of Jesus, and the celebration, reaching down through the ages in music.
Four accomplished soloists, soprano Ellen Taylor Sisson, mezzo-soprano Sarah Marvel Bleasdale, tenor Brian Downen, and bass Kevin Burdette, engaged the audience with their polished and operatic performances.
Mueller commented on his choice of soloists: "The setting of the Magnificat by Heinrich Schütz calls for a "select" choir (using Schütz's term: favoriti), as well as two additional choirs. With Greenwich Choral Society split into two soprano-alto-tenor-bass choirs, the whole work is actually a triple-choir piece, including the favoriti. The Schütz, and the various other roles the soloists will perform in the Mass by Joseph Jongen, as well as a beautiful solo quartet carol -- a setting of "What Sweeter Music," by Michael Fink -- called for versatile performers, so these soloists were the natural choice."
The divided choir was at its best in the opening "Jesus is Born," the Huron carol, immediately moving to the hectoring, chanting "Deo Gracias" from Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols, that burst into a closing major chord. Claude Debussy's work, "Noël des Enfants," was scored for female voices only, with piano accompaniment by James D. Wetzel, a longing for home, ending with a glorious "Alleluia."
Christ Church's mighty organ sounded in the Kyrie from Jongen's Mass, magnificently scored for brasses and solo trumpet. Impassioned, the excerpt ended in an exquisite, sustained choral humming.
Mueller addressed the audience, speaking of the Magnificat of Heinrich Shütz, and its appropriateness for Advent. Downen's thrilling tenor voice rang out, against accompaniment in French horn and trombones. A spirited duet between bass Burdette and soprano Sisson led to various vocal conversations, joined by the chorus. The 11-section composition flowed among soloists, chorus, and instrumentalists, the woodwinds echoing.
A marvelous arrangement of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in the chorus alternated between 3/4 and 4/4 time, letting us hear the work anew. The audience then sang along with "Joy to the World" in an arrangement by the excellent John Rutter. Hodie, a motet by Healey Willan, repeats that word, and is very 20th century, while echoing traditional Gregorian chants.
Low trombones opened the Cherubic Hymn of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the angels singing with joy at the birth, while Variations pastorales by Marcel Samuel-Rousseau was a tour de force for solo harp, exquisitely played by Rita Costanzi, with bravura, bravado and excellent dynamics. The melody was always brought out against chordal structure beneath, the glissandos and the impressionistic variation alternately thrilling and moving.
Gloria and Sanctus by Joseph Jongen, beginning with Gloria in excelsis Deo, voices accompanied by muted horns, depicted the wonder of the shepherds, tuba and cornets sounding.
Organ and male voices informed the work, moving to a glorious full sound and a Hosanna!
The Visit of the Kings was announced by Michael Fink's "What Sweeter Music," with the harp and quartet in gorgeous harmony, and Jongen's Benedictus and Agnus Dei from Mass, scored for harp and solo voices, the soprano singing a Miserere, was subdued and sublime.
A joyful, syncopated carol, "Where Riches is Everlasting," by Bob Chilcott, had the chorus singing "La la," a capella, against a rumba beat. Based on a 16th century text, it had the audience tapping its toes.
Then celebration became universal, with Christmas Joy, a set of ongoing, well-loved carols alternating between chorus and audience, allowing us to sing, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Here We Come A-wassailing," and "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," after their choral statements.
The Welsh carol, "Deck the Hall," finished the performance with buoyant good humor and good will.
Collecting and culling historical musical archives for a journey to, through, and beyond the birth of Christ, from composers known and lesser known, through varying styles, voices and instruments, was Mueller's great gift to this concert. It was cohesive, at times ethereal, and intensely moving and took us to the finest places in our hearts and souls. The audience gave all singers, soloists, musicians and the Choral Society's gifted conductor a long, standing ovation.
For information about upcoming Greenwich Choral Society performances, visit www.greenwichchoralsociety.org.
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Linda Phillips, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee for her music review column in the Greenwich Citizen, is an amateur pianist and was a member of the performing duo Amor Artis. She writes on musical topics for Newport Life Magazine and won a Best Criticism/Review award in 2009 from the Connecticut Press Club. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.