Friday, December 26, 2014

Traditional Handel and a bouquet of carols highlight the Bach Society Candlelight Concert

Who: The Bach Society of St. Louis and the St. Louis Children's Choirs
What: Christmas Candlelight Concert
When: Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall

The Bach Society at Powell Hall
The Bach Society of St. Louis Christmas Candlelight Concert has been a St. Louis tradition since 1951 and, as this year's sold-out edition proved tonight, that tradition is grounded in fine musicianship and intelligent programming.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of attending this annual gala, the concert is in two parts. The first is the more "serious" of the two and usually features the traditional classical repertoire.

This year we got the more "Christmassy" bits of Handel's "Messiah"—basically the more celebratory and uplifting numbers from Part I and the famous "Hallelujah!" chorus from Part II. Conductor A. Dennis Sparger, in his introductory remarks, promised a "HIP" (as in: Historically Informed Performance) interpretation but what we got sounded more conventional than that label implies. The soloists' vocal cadenzas were a bit more ornamented than usual but otherwise tempi and the overall approach were pretty much in the late 19th/early 20th century mainstream. It was a polished performance with exemplary work by the orchestra and chorus, just not what I expected.

Jane Jennings
Soloists Jane Jennings (soprano), Debra Hillabrand (mezzo), and Don Frazure (tenor) were all solid, with Ms. Jennings showing the most emotional investment in the text. Ms. Hillabrand did not sound entirely comfortable with the lower notes in what is, after all, an alto part but was in good voice otherwise.

The second half of the concert was probably what most of the audience was waiting for: traditional carols sung by the Bach Society choir, assisted by the St. Louis Children's Choirs. It opens with the candlelight procession. The lights dim, and the members of the Bach Society walk down the aisles singing, each with an electric candle. If you're lucky enough to be sitting downstairs in the orchestra section, you're soon surrounded by singers - some carrying the melody, some the harmony, enveloping you in a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sound. Meanwhile the sound of the children's choir floats down from the dress circle upstairs. Charles Ives would have loved it; I know I did.

The rest of the evening was a well-chosen mix of traditional carols and more contemporary pieces. My favorite example of the latter was "Salvator Mundi", a suite of three 15th-17th century carols arranged by Welsh composer William Mathias in 1983 for children's chorus and conducted smartly by Bach Society Deputy Director Elizabeth Hogan McFarland. Other highlights included "O Salutaris Hostia" by contemporary Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds with its two soaring solo soprano lines rendered with ethereal beauty by Jilliann Law-Grygier and Darcie Johnson and a lively arrangement of the traditional Catalan carol "Fum, Fum, Fum!" featuring (I think) Jennifer Nitchman on piccolo. A tip of the topper is also due Concertmaster Lenora-Myra Anop for her solo in the Barlow Bradford arrangement of the traditional Austrian carol "Still, Still, Still."

The two audience sing-along numbers were fun as well, although the David Willocks arrangement of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" was in a key that wasn't very friendly to us bass-baritone types.

The concert is over now, of course, but the Bach Society has other concerts planned for next year (its 75th anniversary), including a complete "Messiah" and a Bach "B Minor Mass." For more information, visit the Bach Society web site.

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