Thursday, December 13, 2007

Holiday Choral Concert

Last evening the choral groups of Greenwich High School performed their annual holiday concert under the direction of Patrick Taylor. Your scribe has said before - but it bears repeating - that Patrick does an amazing job of getting each and every one of his singers, regardless of past training or natural ability, to perform at his or her very best. And the proof, as always, was in the rich Christmas pudding of music served up by the choristers.

The large Concert Choir began the program, along with a string ensemble of some 18 talented students, with the lovely "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". It's hard to believe that our local teenagers can sing and play so well, while still managing to maintain a heavy academic work load and no doubt many extracurricular activities and sports as well. Where do they get the energy?

Well, one answer, clearly, is from Patrick Taylor himself. He throws himself into every beat and every gesture with a concentration and enthusiasm that is obviously contagious. Your scribe is sure that the students are well aware of the privilege they enjoy to sing under his direction, and that they are determined to make the most of it.

We then had a pause for a scene change, as the orchestral chairs and stands were moved aside and the Steinway rolled front and center by the preeminent piano mover and player, Kevin Estes. Kevin is Minister of Music at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich (the one that has been doing all the construction recently), and is a very talented organist, pianist, and choral director. He was an excellent choice to replace Ali Allerton, who, of course, also came to GHS by way of First Presbyterian. And since we're talking about one of Greenwich's finest churches, let's mention that Senior Pastor Bill Evertsberg was at the concert, as was his wife Kathy and daughter Taylor (the latter standing tall in the back row of the concert choir).

On with the show. Kevin seated himself at the piano, looked up at Patrick, and every eye in the auditorium focused on the baton. Down it came, and the choir performed the lush harmonies of "Bashana Haba'ah". Next up was the original version of "Jingle Bells", recently rediscovered and republished. Who knew? It's not dissimilar to the version we know today, but it was originally written in a classical, almost Mozartian style, and the chorus is much more imaginative than the version we know. What a treat!

One of the advantages of the large Concert Choir is that they can perform antiphonally, as they did in "Somewhere in My Memory"; we all got "that gingerbread feeling" as they sang. Next was a weather forecast: "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" Sure enough, the schools in Town are all closed today because of an impending snowstorm. (How does Patrick know these things in advance, one wonders?)

The Choir concluded with a modern piece by a local Connecticut composer, Amy Feldman Bernon, which sounded for all the world like a medieval carol. Your scribe had never heard this piece before, but hopes to hear it again ere long. Perhaps Kevin will buy it for the First Pres choir?

Then came the Witchmen. This all-male group treated us to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" in a barber-shop-style setting, followed by a hymn-like piece called "Frozen Waters". "Betelehemu" had that distinctive Afro-Islands sound, enhanced by three talented student percussionists. Their final selection, the ever-popular "Jingle-Bell Rock", was another barber-shop treatment of the popular '50's rock'n'roll hit which had us all tapping our toes.

The Madrigals followed, letting us know that "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas". Then came "This Little Babe" from Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols"; the young women did an excellent job of articulating both Robert Southey's words and Britten's rapid-fire notes. "Within His crib is surest ward; this little babe will be thy guard...all Hell doth at His presence quake, though He Himself for cold do shake...if thou wouldst foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this baby boy!" Kevin did a passable imitation of a harp on the piano. Great stuff!

Two mainstays of the religious tradition followed. Bach's "Suscepit Israel" from the "Magnificat" reminded us of Mary's song after the Visitation by the angel Gabriel: "He remembering His mercies hath holpen His servant Israel." Luke probably wrote these words ca. AD 80-90, and Mary quite likely never said them, but hey! - this is one of the most beautiful poems in any language. We also have Luke to thank for the Christmas narrative we know so well, with the angels and shepherds and Wise Men. Without the Gospel of Luke, the whole Christmas season as we know it would never have existed. Imagine that! If ever there was an indisputable example of the enduring power of words, Luke is it.

The Madrigals concluded with "Winterlight", another piece by Amy Feldman Bernon, this one quiet and magical; and then launched into "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - great fun!

The always-incredible Chamber Singers took the stage. Your scribe is in awe of the superb musicality of this group, which he does not hesitate to name the finest high-school group of its kind in the nation. And probably of any other nation, as well. Their crispness, their pitch-perfect execution, their exquisite blend and sheer beauty of tonality are all impossible to overpraise, so your scribe will not try. They wished us "A Merry Christmas" and let us know that "Christmas Time is Here."

The next piece was, for your scribe, the high point of the entire concert. Vittoria's "O Magnum Mysterium" is deceptively simple, and yet one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces of the whole choral repertory to sing well. The Chambers personified the Italian concept of "sprezzatura" - making the difficult seem easy - in probably the best rendition of this lovely piece your scribe has ever heard. "Bravo!" he said last night, and "Bravo!" he says again.

Healey Willan's "Hodie" seemed almost anti-climactic to your scribe, and even John Rutter's "Deck the Hall" paled by comparison with the Vittoria. Your scribe is a big fan of Rutter's, and when John visited Greenwich a while ago he took him and a group of musicians to lunch at the Belle Haven Club; there we learned some fascinating details of his love life and how, after breaking up with a concert-pianist girlfriend, he rewrote her part for the next day's Royal Philharmonic premiere performance by adding thousands of new notes. To his amazement, she took them all in stride and played them perfectly. "Deck the Hall" (note the singular, please!) was a much simpler piece, and of course beautifully performed by the Chambers.

Then it was the annual free-for-all as Patrick invited any and all to join in the "Hallelujah Chorus". There were only two conditions: you had to have graduated from Greenwich High School, and been a member of the chorus. All the choirs and alums crowded onto the too-small stage, and the string ensemble reassembled for the grand finale. Patrick climbed onto his precarious high perch, at risk of life and limb (one hopes that GHS has a hefty accident insurance policy on him just in case), and hundreds of voices joined in Handel's masterwork. A standing ovation was the fitting conclusion to a wonderful evening.

Thanks to Patrick, Kevin, and all the students for this memorable concert. It is nice to know that a new auditorium for GHS is being planned, as the current one was obsolete before it was completed. Notwithstanding, everyone rose above the less than optimal conditions, including a lighting failure at the end, and left us all feeling much more in the spirit of the season than before we came in. How lucky we all are - perfomers and listeners alike - to live in this great Town at this time of year!


Blogger Vicki said...

Where do they get the energy?
I think it has something to do with their age. ;)

The post is great! It brought back so many of my own memories. I sang and acted all through high school. Although I was in the Concert Choir and other small groups, Madrigals was one of my favorite groups to sing in. We performed all over the state.

Thanks for sharing and for giving me the walk down my own memory lane. :D

December 14, 2007 6:05 AM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Hi, Vicki!

Yeah, you're right about their age - they seem to have unlimited energy!

Yay for singing and Madrigals! Are you keeping up with your music and acting?

December 14, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Vicki said...

Not so much anymore. It's been about 4 years since I've done any acting. I miss it though. I love opening night butterfies. Not that I was really scared to go out, but just that waiting for the curtain to go up and hit the stage. :D

We have several great community playhouses around here.
And while I'm so very tempted to audition, with rewrites going on I don't have time to do both. The book wins. :)

December 16, 2007 8:15 AM  

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