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24.12.05

The Dubious Joys of Christmas Music 

For us at ionarts, Christmas season is a little like being shipwrecked on the ocean. Three days without attending a concert is akin to having gone so long without water. Not that concerts are not abound – but they are all Christmas themed and just like the shipwrecked knows he has to resist drinking salt water, so we, too, should know better.

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Christmas with the Choral Arts Society, N.Scribner
But I was weak. With just a little friendly encouragement I was no longer able to fight the urge to go to hear some live music and hurled myself headlong into the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s Christmas Music concert at the Kennedy Center. These kinds of concerts are actually more of a challenge to review than an NSO or Royal Concertgebouw concert, because the audience, their expectations and indeed the entire purpose of the “Christmas concert” is a very different one. To write about the latter as if that difference did not exist or matter would be useless and silly, if perhaps temporarily amusing. But then again, “ChASo” is also a very professional musical institution and deserves to be held to the highest standards of performance, ‘even’ in a Christmas concert. To strike a fair balance between assessing the performance for what it was supposed to be (and not to indict it on that very account) and to accept what the audience likely expected to get – instead of measuring it against an abstract and absolute standard of musical craftsmanship – it helps to have a certain amount of detachment to the going-ons on stage.

The processional with tambourine is therefore safe from my personal indignation and children crying or a toddler’s attempt to sing a phrase that caught its fancy put a smile on my face rather than elicit an exacerbated scoff. A wonderful O Magnum Mysterium – Gabrieli – even suggested delight waiting in the wings! But that winner was followed by a succession of less successful adventures. Washington composers and ChASo-members John Pickard and Richard Wayne Dirksen were presented to the audience with a vocal work of their own making each.


Pickard’s, set to a text of his own, took everything I don’t like about British choral writing (and none of what makes it bearable), everything that makes American “Rutter-ite” choral music sound insipid and emasculated (to my ears, at least) and then proceeded to throw in a saccharine dose of über-wholesome middle-Americana ‘we-love-Jesus’ spirit into the ghastly mix. It’s crime was not even being outrageously bad but that it didn’t even have the guts to be bad. It was evasivley mediocre, which is even worse. One exquisite choral turn of a phrase where a second of Brucknerish gravitas interrupted the musical meaninglessness did not salvage “Beneath the Stars” for me. Even the audience, though duly applauding, doggedly resisted a standing ovation for the present composer.

Written for unaccompanied chorus and set to a fifteenth century carol, Mr. Dirksen’s contribution was far better and failed to take off completely only because the choir’s higher registers couldn’t sing, much less sustain, a decent piano/pianissimo. Instead of ‘subtle’ they made the music sound wimpy.
Followed “Noël Nouvelet” with gorgeous soprano Arianna Zukerman. For a while I thought I was just not familiar enough with historical performance practices of medieval French song but it emerged quickly that it was just not sung well by Ms. Zukerman – and mostly straight into her score rather than the Concert Hall at that.

But it all would have been ignored and forgiven for a great, nay: even a good performance of the Bach cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Normally I would overlook the petty fact that the Cantata was misspelled on every occasion by an overzealous Umlaut-user (“Jauchzet Gott in allen Länden” is not only wrong but is homophonic to “Praise God in all loins” which, I believe, would be one of his more secular Cantatas) – but it serves so well as an example how there were things wrong with every single aspect of the cantata’s performance. The difficult trumpet part sounded, well… difficult and Ms. Zukerman overwhelmed and underrehearsed, just like all her instrumental colleagues. Her voice was best when inaudible in a venue and work that were evidently a size or two too big for her. Perhaps the standards are different with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra or the Chattanooga Symphony or the Jackson Symphony (I am not being an ass – those are actually the highlights on her bio. OK, so I am being an ass – but I am still only quoting from the “Meet the Artist” notes) but they shouldn’t be or at least shouldn’t be imported to Washington. Anyway, the complete mess that conductor and ChASo-founder Norman Scribner made of the Bach was a sad example of shoddy musical standards, indeed – completely unbecoming of such revered an institution as him and his group.

The first half of the program ended with a world premiere of James Grant’s Eja! Eja!. I quote the composer from the program notes: “In the summer of 2004, Norman Scribner commissioned me to compose a “multi-purpose” work for the Choral Arts Society’s 2005 Christmas Music concert. The commission was requested for several reasons: one, to celebrate the Choral Arts Society’s Fortieth Anniversary Season; two, to honor the retirement of Fred Begun, principal timpanist with the National Symphony Orchestra and longtime friend and timpanist with the Choral Arts Society Orchestra; and three, to make full-throttled use of the Choral Arts Society’s 200 voices in a joyful Christmas romp for timpany, soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra.”

He managed to fulfil all purposes. It was a romp, it was a fun work for the audience and the timpanist and Ms. Zukerman sang much better than in the Bach. The whole thing sounded like the soundtrack to “Return of the Jedi – Christmas Edition” but that might put it into direct neighborhood with the Korngold Violin Concerto and there is nothing wrong with that.

The second half was dedicated to celebrating sacred rhythms. It started with three parts (of a total six) of Ariel Ramírez Navidad Nuestra which is also included on a new disc by the Choral Arts Society (coupled with Ramírez’ Misa Criolla and the Congolese Missa Luba by Father Guida Haazen) on recording distributed by Naxos. I vaguely remember a Jose Carreras recording. During the first part, La Anunciación, I also remembered a few East Village Mexican Restaurants (although Ramírez, it must be said, is an Argentine) where the juke box played hits from the 70s and 80s. It is of dubious musical worth but has an undeniable fun-factor if the idea – in Los Reyes Magos – of the three wise men wearing bombachas and a poncho is alright with you. Manuel J. Meléndez, José Sacin and Pablo Talamante were the three tenors. The Gloria from the Misa Criolla was more pleasing, still; cut from the same catchy musical cloth.

“Carols for all” was the order for the rest of the concert, including the sing-along favorites “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Silent Night” (including an amusing language lesson as the second strophe was to be sung in Portuguese) and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”. Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle” along the way sounded rather awful, but this time Ms. Zukerman cannot be blamed because she remained completely inaudible. The inevitable Bach/Gounod Ave Maria exemplified the constant between the soprano and the music, cumulating in two last notes that she probably wishes she had let out with less a shriek. Other than that, things rolled out nicely and the crowd enjoyed itself, especially the two kids next to me that played hand held video games all along. As I left the Concert Hall, Ms. Zukerman engaged with “I wonder as I wander” which seemed apt.

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