in: Reviews

November 23, 2014

Praise the Singers and Pass on the Premise

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Detail from program cover

Detail from program cover

First Church Congregational in the People’s Republic of Cambridge was the site last night of Spectrum Singers multicultural program “Joyously Affirmed.”

But was it really? For this Western culture maven with a Hebraic ancestry, the program cover’s cutesy juxtaposition of a ’50s menorah alongside multicolored African robes and a generic 19th-century stained glass Nativity induced a decided case of the queasies before a note sounded.

Frankly, despite a couple of handsome moments, I could have done without much of the first half. Even in Cambridge, is it not okay for a Christmas concert to exist without obligatory nods to Hanukaa and Kwanzaa? No, we must get merely passable arrangements of such as the “Let’s Light the Menorah” song, another ditty in Yiddish without Yiddishkeit, evocations in Hebrew without consonants, and a choral dressing-up of (seriously) Tom Lehrer’s “Chanukah in Santa Monica” without satiric bite. Instead of those Fiddler on the Roof-ish yaba bim boms, couldn’t we have had Bernstein’s “I’m So Easily Assimilated” from Candide?

There were two successes in the Jewish set. “Ha Neiros Halawu” by Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), a Mendelssohnian hymn that could have been comfortable in the Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America 1940 or in Reform Jewish worship until then 1970s, when cantors started channeling Tevye. And despite the weakly enunciated Yiddish in Ellstein/Oysher’s “Drey Dredele,” the addition of Glenn Dickson’s keening klezmer clarinet let the performance evoke a vanished European Jewry and capture the pathos, for some even the tragedy and horror, of a people rejoicing while oppressed.

Am I alone in detecting a certain cognitive dissonance when  a chorus of white faces backed by a pink-cheeked percussion section essays a Nigerian Christmas carol for an audience with only two brown faces? The Cambridge tribal drums—Brother Blue, dead five years, was here vividly missed—sometimes swamped singers with an exuberant collection of bongos, gourds and cylinders variously skinned. The sight of the embarrassed-looking middle-aged choristers stiltedly to-and-fro-ing stretched our comfort zone. A heartfelt spiritual performed by Robert Honeysucker would have served so much better to welcome to Christmas the African-American spirit. And what of Kwanzaa? Google tells us that its penetration in the marketplace has dropped to less than 2% of holiday sales. One furthermore should not look closely into the holiday’s origins: first celebrated in 1966 within the Black Power movement, it has little choral tradition and founder Maulana Karenga, born Ronald Everett, has a troubling past.

One Christmas piece on the first half conveyed authenticity and engagement. Kodaly’s arrangement of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” harmonized and arranged the traditional tune, first chanted in unison, then interestingly divided in two parts alternated with SATB; through-composed, it gave every verse stunningly different assignments of tune and support.

After a candlelight procession without candles in a too brightly lighted church, a guiltless Advent arrived in the second half with Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Somewhat austere with its mild harp accompaniment, even in the SATB version, (the originalws for trebles-only) the work nonetheless welcomes the Nativity with warmth and awe. Spectrum Singers’ 36 voices displayed a tremendous variety of color and dynamics across well-shaped arcs of beautiful phrases. Fortissimos were unforced and enveloping in the large resonant space and pianissimos were supported beautifully, never sagging in pitch. “There Is No Rose” began with a reflective and juicily pronounced setting in old English, “There is no rose of such vertu as the rose that bare Jesu.” The section ended with a gradual diminuendo on a long-held chord which imperceptibly vanished before the final period came from the harp. “That youngë Child” followed with a strange key change—the women enhanced the sentiments with unison singing in wonderfully straight tone. Conductor John Ehrlich drove “This Little Babe” at a daring tempo which obscured some of the words in the resonant sanctuary, but the concluding cadence sounded grand. Judy Saiki invested the solo harp Interlude with patient, rapt quietude and awe that did much to invest the Nativity with wonder. Britten’s chromatic writing for the instrument is clever enough to require only one pedal change here (but there were many elsewhere). A melting duet, “Spring Carol,” arrived with flavorful attention to William Cornish’s language. In No. 10, “Deo Gracias,” Britten finally shows excitement, even as this ecclesiastically challenged writer wonders how “Adam lay ibounden” relates to Christmas; but the celebration of April surely must bear symbolic connections with the Annunciation. The choir recessed impressively to “Hodie Christus Natus Est” in fine Anglican chant, trailing off into the narthex and silence.

The singers returned with Bruckner’s “Virga Jesse,” producing sumptuous waves of tone concluding in a glorious Allelujah. From Alf S. Houkom (b. 1935) came “The Rune of Hospitality,” in a tasteful English pastoral tradition but with many surprising modulations. The harp embellished nicely, while leaving the singers few cues about key and pitch; they nevertheless were on their marks, and the piece ended sweetly after much wandering around the circle of fifths.

Set to E. E. Cummings, “little tree” began with an inevitable humming chorus and harp arpeggios. The sopranos again sang straight again—altogether apt for the poet’s arch simplicity. Steve Heitzeg’s setting in the commercial church anthem tradition was neither hard to sing nor hard to hear. We enjoyed Vaughan Williams’s “The Blessed Son of God” but remained wondering why so much Advent music is solemn, especially inasmuch as the final stanza concludes “All Christendom be merry/ and therefore all give thanks.” We finally got real rejoicing in William Mathias’s “Sir Christemas,” which struck me as a most upbeat wassail song, showing the choir in lively voice and spirits—and in condition to give us more.

Despite my personal caveats, I can happily report that under an effective and committed John Ehrlich, the chorus did rise to the pre-holidays occasion by offering a generous, ambitious and well executed spectrum of music in Hebrew, Yiddish, three forms of early English, Latin, and Nigerian—and how many choruses in how many cities do, indeed can do, that?

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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