The Empire City Men’s Chorus (ECMC), performing since 1993, devoted this year’s holiday concerts, on December 10, 12, and 16, at Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea, to Christmas music by the late, openly gay, American composer Conrad Susa (1945-2013), friend and teacher of ECMC Artistic Director Vince Petersen, who presided, along with Assistant Conductor and first tenor Alex Canovas, over “Christmas with Conrad.” Sean Forte was the pianist; Nathan Taylor, the organist; Liann Cline, the harpist; Carlos Cuestas, the guitarist; Christine Chen, the marimba and vibes player; and Maiko Hosoda and Chi-Ching Lin, the additional percussionists. The December 12 performance is considered here.
Under Canovas’ baton, the singers, assisted by organist Taylor, roused us up with their mellifluous singing of William Austin’s English Renaissance-era “Chanticleer’s Carol,” wake-up call of the rooster. In Susa’s arrangement of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” the forces divided into an Angelic Host, chanting ethereally in Latin and led by Petersen, and Carolers, entrusted with the traditional carol and led by Canovas, singing in counterpoint and blending exquisitely, harmoniously.
ECMC, the instrumentalists, and the audience, singing along, all exhilarated, and guided by Petersen, collaborated on “A Christmas Garland” (1989), comprising Springdale, Pennsylvania-born Greenwich Village resident Susa’s engaging, enchanting, and mesmerizing arrangements of the likes of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Joy to the World,” with audience members singing in counterpoint to choristers in the penultimate of these.
A featured work, beside “A Christmas Garland,” was Susa’s “Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest” (1992), 10 songs, in assorted Spanish dialects: Biscayan, Catalan, Andalucian, Castilian, and the Spanish of Puerto Rico, Spain, and Mexico, led by Petersen, and assisted by Cuestas, Chen, and Cline. ECMC’s “¡Oh mi Belén” (Oh My Bethlehem) proved silkily incandescent. “El Desembre Congelat” (Frozen December) was cheerful, even playful, and “Alegría,” folk song-like and vibrant. “A la Nanita Nana” was the first of several lullabies, soothing, and colorful, though muted, with “Las Posadas” (The Inn) continuing in a similar vein. “Campana Sobre Campana,” sung in English as “Bell after Bell,” found voices and instruments tintinnabulating in celebration. “En Belén tocan a fuego” (In Bethlehem, They Touch Fire), to a catchy dance rhythm, was at once gentle and earthy. “El Noi de la Mare,” sung a cappella, in English as “The Child of the Mother,” was quietly rocking. “Chiquirriquitín” vibrated with sounds of the manger, peaceful but undeniably alive. With “El Rorro,” another lullaby, the artists brought the piece to an exultant, if understated, climax. Catalan carol “Fum, Fum, Fum!” sung in English was ECMC and the instrumentalists’ crisp and intricate pendant to “Carols and Lullabies.”
Moving from Susa to Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” the chorus divided into a pair of sonorous antiphonal choirs. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Judy Garland’s song in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” was Empire City’s melting encore.
“I Carry Your Heart”—or perhaps “i carry your heart”—settings of the verses of e. e. cummings, will be ECMC’s May 2018 offering. Visit www.empirecitymenschorus.org
for further details.