|photo by Sherri Rase
Harmonium's Winter Concert
Harmonium Choral Society’s “Carols and Lullabies” was performed on Saturday evening, December 10 and Sunday afternoon, December 11 to thronging crowds. Both performances were held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey, just a short walk from the train station there. And a brisk walk it would have been, with the weather more like January than December, but for the first year in a long time, some sort of precipitation hadn’t been falling. Last year, it was icy rain, but this year it was a clear, cold and crisp day–just perfect for walking through the red doors and into the gothic stone church, where it was warm in the vestibule and wind-free!
Harmonium Holiday concerts begin with music in the round. This year’s opening, Paul Mealor’s “A Spotless Rose,” was doubly meaningful as the rose is also Harmonium symbol. The beauty of this contemporary classic piece, part of a larger work “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” is magnified by being able to hear the echoing of the voices arrayed around the aisles framing the nave, but also by hearing the texture of the individual voices that are closest to wherever you’re sitting. The choristers then processed to the risers to “Nowell Sing We” featuring paired soloists Caitlyn Roper with Ken Short, Beth Shirley with Drew McDonough, and Ellie Escher with Matthew Swiss. The rays of the sun, soon to set, limned the choristers and provided halos for the singers of the heavenly music. When assembled, they began Cary Ratcliff’s arrangement of “Past Three O’Clock,” with the harp punctuating and embellishing the “town crier,” as the carol was originally sung by the London Waits–a group of watchmen who ultimately became singing groups—and we thought doo-wop began in Jersey! Paired with “Upon My Lap My Sovereign Sits,” a song from the 16th century, the tone of the sense of joy and wonder at Jesus’ birth is set. The next pairing consisted of two German carols, spanning about 300 years. Johann Walther’s “Joseph Lieber, Joseph Mein” and Max Reger’s “Maria Wiegenlied” share compositional similarities, but Walther’s carol is a request for Joseph to help put the baby to sleep, while Reger’s setting shows a musical hearkening to the Romantic movement, its lyric describing the beauty of Mary with Jesus as she helps him go to sleep.
Next came two contemporary arrangements with very different feelings, though both share the modality we associate with Chanukah. Gene Glickman’s setting of “Mayn Yingele” tells of a hard working Eastern European immigrant, who only gets to see his son when the son is sleeping, due to the hours the father works. The fine young son wonders where his father is, as he never gets to see him. Alice Parker’s arrangement of the Sephardic lullaby “Durme, Durme” is an inspired contrast. Glickman’s setting is the wistful, poetic Ashkenazim keening–why must the father and son be separated when the father works so hard for the future? Parker’s setting is in the same Fraygish mode, but the way the arrangement is made, the warmer climes lead to warmer harmonies that are a delicious contrast in musical enjoyment.
Conrad Susa’s “Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest” was the major piece in the program and provided many gifts for soloists in the form of chances to shine. Dr. Matlack expressed that the cycle of the songs seems to alternate lilting lullabies with more rousing party-type songs and the experience was certainly bore that out. Favorites of the cycle for me included “Alegria.” featuring beautiful guitar with soloists Greg Voinier and Ted Roper giving a warm feeling to Christmas South of the Border; “La Posadas,” with soloists Ben Schroeder, Greg Voinier, Roper, and Matthew Shurts that had really wonderful textural differences among the mens voices; “Campana sobre Campana,” or “Bell after Bell,” which was a celebration in itself; “En Belén Tocan a Fuego,” or “In Bethlehem a Fire Begins,” with Sarah Hunter, Nancy Watson-Baker, and Shurts, with guitar and harp and percussion, oh my!; “El Noi de la Mare,” or “What Gift Do We Give Mary,” adding Schroeder to the crew from “En Belén;” and finally “Chiquirriquitín,” which is lilting and fun and, while it refers to the baby in the manger, I fancied that the title of the song was onomatopoetic of the bell around the cow’s neck, as she bends to eat from the manger, but that’s the poet in me. The entire cycle was a beautiful way to close Act I.
The caliber of the musicians associated with Harmonium sets the bar very high. Merynda Adams, a very accomplished musician whose Carnegie Hall debut was a sold-out show, graced the performances with her playing of the harp. Guitarist Christopher Keniff is a noted guitarist whose work bridges classical to contemporary composers and he is both a recitalist as well as a chamber musician. Joseph Keefe sings with Harmonium Choral Society, as well as adding his talents as a percussionist, in these performances playing marimba, vibraphone and an assortment of percussion instruments. George Moser was the organist for the concerts.
Thank goodness for the program notes! A well-written program whets the appetite for the joy of the music and Dr. Matlack’s notes are abundant–the outing is a gustatory pleasure for the ears, as well as the brain, when you attend a Harmonium concert, and to learn what’s behind the selections and programming adds further to the enjoyment of the concert itself. Before we knew it, Act II was beginning.
Harmonium Chamber Singers treated us to a mini set beginning with William Byrd’s sad and beautiful “Lulla, Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby” that mourns the shedding of the Blood of the Innocents, when so many babies were slaughtered in the quest for Jesus. It was followed by Gaspar Fernandes’ “Eso Rigor e Repente” that must have been as much fun to sing as it was to hear. A contest among groups who seek to show their love of Jesus and celebration at the expense of their neighbors, it’s a rollicking song with origins in Puebla, Mexico, and featured John Lamb, Gregory Jung, PJ Livesey, Ken Short, Sharlys Leszczuk, Kim Williams, Andrew Moody, Linda Clark, Beth Shirley, Chris Jacoby and Laura Winslow.
The next two pieces were by more modern composers, beginning with Eleanor Daley’s “The World’s Desire,” with lots of suspensions and beautiful harmonies that had me salivating, as a singer myself. Then Abbie Betinis’ “Run, Toboggan, Run,” for which the ensemble donned all sorts of fun winter hats, scarves and gloves, and Betinis brought us back to the life lessons we learn when we play in the snow, not the least of which are Physics and Philosophy! It was a musical manifestation of joy and nostalgia and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
The Chamber Singers were joined by the rest of the Choral Society for “A Carol Collage,” arranged by John Ferguson. Providing the echo from the back of the nave were Nancy Bangiola, Amy Jensen, Jung, and George Aronson and in the vaulted space of St. Peter’s, it was Holiday magic. Then Michael Fink’s “What Sweeter Music” saw the harp join in, while the lyrics described the beauty of its song.
Much as in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” dances, there was an International set that included the traditional “Kalinka,” familiar to anyone who has ever played that famous block-arranging game, Jennifer Huang was soloist in “Pengyou, Ting!,” a joyful exhortation to share the good news of Jesus’ birth, that actually consists, in this arrangement by Carolyn Jennings, of the music of one folk song with these lyrics from a different work and the pairing is inspired. Continuing with the most popular holiday song in the Philippines, “Pasko Na Naman!” penned by composer Felipe Padilla de Leon and lyricist Levi Celerio, artists recognized with National Artist status in their home country. This song sounds like the love child of the two that preceded it, sharing elements with both. The travel continued with “Serenissima Una Noche” by Geronimo Gonzalez. Despite being written in the 17th century, it sounds like the kind of travel song that would be on your iPod for a major cross-country drive, and back in Joseph and Mary’s day, that was some serious travel, when a donkey is your ride.
The final set of songs were rousing and great fun as a send-off into the Holiday splendor of Morristown. It started with the Jeffrey Van arrangement of “The Friendly Beasts” featuring soloists PJ Livesey and Paula Roper, a song usually considered to be a children’s song. Guitar and harp added to the vigor of the voices and reminded us that, when there is a major event happening, each of us has something to contribute. When adults can recall the joy and wonder in the simplest things, that inner child flourishes to feed the grown-up on the outside. Harmonium concerts always feature a sing-a-long and when the director has a librettist in residence–literally–then getting alternate lyrics to a classic is a given. Jabez Van Cleef was asked to provide something seasonally apt for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” with a flavor of the season and the locale, and provided his wife, Dr. Matlack, with something brilliant within a quarter of an hour. Great fun was had, as we, in the audience, turned to the page to discover Morristown lyrics to this perennial favorite. Finally, Harmonium Choral Society treated us to a rousing arrangement of “Jingle Bells” that could have caused chaos had we tried to sing along. Thank goodness we were encouraged to enjoy it silently, as the arrangement goes wild somewhere in the middle, before returning to something more traditional.
A reception welcoming all was held immediately thereafter in the Church Hall where many bought Harmonium CDs as stocking stuffers. Then off we went, whistling in the dark into the twilight wrapped in the true spirit of the Holidays.
Visit Harmonium Choral Society at its website, www.harmonium.org for more information about CDs, concerts and auditions.