Tag Archives: Handel

The Magic of Christmas

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 8-17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The 38th annual “Magic of Christmas” series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, omitted some of the bells and whistles of previous productions, but was alll the better for it, letting the music stand on its own, aided by sopranos Suzanne Nance and Susie Pepper.

The first half of the program was the least successful, consisting largely of medleys featuring the kind of holiday music played in department stores, albeit by a better orchestra.

Notable exceptions were an unknown Romanian carol, “O, ce vesti minuntã,” sung by Nance, and a bluesy version of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” by Pepper.

The solo orchestra was on display in a lively version of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijė” Suite, which could have used a little more rehearsal time. This review is of opening night, and things are bound to improve over the next two weeks.

The prize for “it seemed like a good idea a the time” goes to a medley of songs with the word “magic” in them, with the orchestra backing up Pepper and Nance. Containing the word does not confer any distinction to the songs, but the light show was spectacular.

The second half of the show was marvelous, beginning with “Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion,” played by a brass choir, with organ accompaniment by Ray Cornils.

The “Magic of Christmas” chorus, under chorus master Nicolás Dosman, contributed a striking chant-like “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Mack Wilberg, the arranger of three of the evening’s show pieces.

It was followed by a moving performance of “O Holy Night” by Nance, who sang it as well as any operatic soprano could. (Note to future PSO conductors: For full effect, it requires a boy soprano.)

The highlight of the evening was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It is always good to hear this from a a major chorus and orchestra but both outdid themselves on Friday. The part singing by the chorus was perfectly delineated and balanced, without the muddiness that often mars its performance by a large group.

Pepper’s expansive version of “Let it Go,” from “Frozen,” captivated the younger members of the audience, dressed in holiday finery, some with reindeer antlers.

Music director Robert Moody, conducting his last “Magic of Christmas” series of concerts, sang “My Grown Up Christmas List,” with the orchestra conducted by Dosman. Moody has a surprisingly good voice, which sometimes reminded me of a French horn.

The traditional holiday carol sing-along seemed louder and livelier than usual, with Moody quipping that the audience was auditioning for next-year’s chorus.

The final “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with chorus and soloists in a Wilberg arrangement, was especially appropriate in these times. Now if it could only be sung to the right tune…

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Welcome Back, Maine Gay Men’s Chorus

The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus
First Parish Church, Portland
Dec. 6, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

It’s good to have the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus back for Christmas. The chorus, which disbanded in 2012, has regrouped under the direction of Larry Jackson, and gave its first Holiday concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the First Parish Church in Portland.

As in the past, the program was a mixture of traditional Christmas carols, humor and classical music.

The high point of Sunday afternoon’s concert was a performance of arias from Handel’s “Messiah” by tenor Martin Lescault. I have never heard better readings of “Comfort Ye My People,” and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” technically or dramatically. Lescault sang these extremely demanding works without strain and with deep feeling.

As if embarrassed to be seen on these classical heights, the chorus immediately launched into a parody of the “Hallelujah” by the Sisters of the Immaculate Deception. Having taken a vow of silence, the sisters nevertheless wanted to perform the great chorus, and lined up on stage with large cue cards containing all the syllables of the text, which they displayed at appropriate beats in the score. It was a difficult feat to get the timing right, but also hilarious, especially with deliberate confusion at the end. Some of the nuns attempted to achieve a fortissimo by holding the cards higher.

Lescault was heard again as soloist in “My Grown Up Christmas List” and the encore, “Night of Silence,” by Daniel Kantor. I normally regard “Silent Night” as hallowed ground, not to be disturbed in any way, but Kantor’s eloquent and subdued descants over the tune sung by the entire chorus, seem an exception to the rule.

A second guest soloist was Jennifer Miller, who was instrumental in getting the chorus back together. She sang a pop version of “O Holy Night,” with accompanist Sarah Phinney on piano.

The show also included some of the gay parodies for which it has become known: “Walking in Women ’s Underwear,” to the tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” by two guys, one of them bald, leading to the punch line “Your hair looks swell,” and “Christmas Toys for Girls and Boys,” exploring stereotyped gender roles. “Dance of the Toy Flutes” included both innuendo and two bear-like dancers, one in a tutu.

The traditional pieces were well done, especially the opening “Canon of the Bells” and “O Tannenbaum,” which I haven’t heard sung in German since World War II.
Eric Smith was fine as soloist in a soulful version of “Who Is She That Travels.”

As is the case with (almost) every chorus, the Gay Men’s needs more basses. Who knows, they could eventually rival the Red Army Chorus.

Clarity at Christmas in the Cathedral

Christmas in the Cathedral
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 5, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

“For now we see as through a glass darkly; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.”

I thought of these verses from the King James Bible at the beginning of the Choral Art Society’s’ Christmas in the Cathedral Saturday night, under the direction of Robert Russell.

The women’s voices in 13th and 14th Century Latin carols, “Angelus ad Virginem,” and “Verbum caro factum est,” had an angelic clarity, rather like that of a boy soprano, which is too rare in choral music. They retained it even in the latter work, which has more complex counterpoint.

They were joined by the tenors and bases in the processional, which has become a tradition at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: “Personent hodie voices puerulae” of 1582. It gets better every year.

The Christmas concert rose to that level again after intermission, when soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen sang an “Ave Verum” by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), which was absolutely ravishing. It was accompanied by a piano obligato, played by Dan Moore, which was unable to reduce the perfect intervals of the voices to the “tempered” compromises of the keyboard.

The Portland Brass Quintet was in good form, with the trumpets ringing from the high vaulted ceiling, especially in the rapid ornamentation of “Rejoice and be Merry,” and the joyful pagan dance of the “Gloucestshire Wassail.”

Following their three solos, they took part in an experiment on Handel’s “Messiah,” a work that has become a little too much of a Christmas tradition, having been intended for Easter. The experiment was to replace the orchestral parts of four sections, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with a brass quintet.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment: ”Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The transcription was amazing, and generally well played, but it was an impossible task to begin with.

After intermission came two choir director specials, “Intrada” by Alfred Reed (1921-2005) and “Welcome all wonders,” by Richard Dirksen (1921-2003). The former was distinguished by an organ fanfare by Dan Moore, and the latter by a gradual segue into what sounded a little like a variation on “A Mighty Fortress…”

It was good to hear Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” the ultimate holiday carol arrangement. It is actually composed, building upon familiar themes, instead of being thrown together in the usual pastiche.

Of course no Christmas concert would be complete without the thoroughly awful, a heavily amplified version of a gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” arranged by Robert Ray, in which the soloist drowned out the chorus. I ordinarily abide by my grandmother’s admonition–“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all,” but the audience loved it, so it should be mentioned.

You can make up your own mind today (Sunday, Dec. 6). The matinee is sold out, but there are still tickets left for the evening performance at 7:30.