Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Ensemble brings warmth and resonance into its concert of rare Christmas gems

Artistic Director Patrick McDonough, Erik Hundtoft, Nicholas Ertsgarrd, Kerry McCarthy, Melanie Downie Robinson, and Catherine van der Salm / Photo credit: Cory Niedfeldt
The Ensemble, led by artistic director Patrick McDonough, gave a fascinating Christmas concert of rare choral gems at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church on Sunday afternoon (December 28th). The program featured a number of songs by contemporary composers and a world premiere by American Linda Kachelmeier as well as selections of 20th Century composers, the earliest of which was the British composer Peter Warlock (pseudonym of Philip Heseltine), who died in 1930. Many of the works used text from anonymous sources dating back to the Middle Ages and the sophisticated sounds often embraced styles of earlier eras.

Overall, The Ensemble made superb use of the warm and resonant acoustic of St. Stephen’s with just a handful of voices: sopranos Catherine van der Salm and Melanie Downie Robinson, alto Kerry McCarthy, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, baritone Erik Hundtoft, and bass Patrick McDonough. Excellent blend and dynamics were hallmarks of this concert. Clarity of tone and purity of vowels were at a marvelously high level, but ending consonants got a little lost at times.

The concert began with “Four Medieval Carols” by Brian Holmes, who teaches physics at San Jose University and freelances as a horn player when he isn’t writing music. Each carol drew from text dating back to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries and some had the style of a madrigal. “Good Cheer” buoyantly welcomed Christ’s birth and the New Year. “The Moor Maiden,” which featured soprano Melanie Downie Robinson” had intriguing pauses that underscored its haunting serenity. According to scholars the lyric and enigmatic poetry in this song alludes to Mary Magdalene, although her name is not mentioned. Of much frothier complexion was “Nay, Ivy, Nay” even though it told of a contest in which Holly (masculine) won the upper hand over Ivy (feminine). “Jolly Jankin” described a clumsy and probably corrupt priest and a narrator who confesses her own ignorance.

The next set of songs contained an ethereal performance of “There is no Rose” by John Joubert (South African), a gentle rendition of “The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn” by Edmund Rubbra (British), and a spirited interpretation of the “Corpus Christi Carol” by Trond Kverno (Norwegian), inspired by 15th century text that arrestingly mixed imagery of a knight of the Holy Grail with the crucified Christ. Soprano van der Salm and baritone Hundtoft evocatively sang the solos in that piece.

The third set featured Peter Warlock’s soothing “Lullaby my Jesus,” which was graced with a crystalline high note from van der Salm plus Warlock’s “Bethlehem Down” with its lovely tranquil ending. Marvelous harmonies, an excellent tempo transition, and van der Salm’s solo passages enhanced “A Hymn of the Nativity” by Kenneth Leighton (British).

The group’s stunning performance of “O Radiant Dawn” by Scottish composer James Mac Millan included huge swells of sound and the negotiation of exposed treacherous notes that would trip up most singers. The level of difficulty remained high with the singing of American composer Frank Ferko’s “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” which featured some expressive singing for the middle voices (alto McCarthy and tenor Ertsgaard).

The fifth set presented a beautifully blended “Hodie Christus natus est by Niels La Cour (Danish), bell-like clarity in “Tota pulchra est” by Maurice DuruflĂ© (French), excellent dynamic contrast in “O magnum mysterium by local composer Adam Steele, and a soaring soprano line at the end of “Ave Maria” by Frank La Rocca (American).

The final selections, written by Linda Kachelmeier who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, were inspired by familiar carols. “Good Kind Wenceslaus” featured a thick harmonic structure and fine solos by Downie Robinson and Hundtoft. It seemed that the “Coventry Carol” started a bit tentatively, but quickly got into the spirit of the carol even after a very tricky key change right before the final stanza. The Ensemble finished the concert by giving the world premiere of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which included seamless trade-offs of phrases between members of the choir and a wonderful climax with the words “And with true love and brotherhood/Each other now embrace.” The audience rewarded the singers with extended, heartfelt applause, and hopefully, at another Christmas concert in the future, The Ensemble will present a few of these gems once more.

Photo credit: Cory Niedfeldt


Will said...

We have been very fortunate to have Mr. Mac Millan's opera Clemency done in Boston in a strongly cast production. Happily, the composer was in the audience on opening night of the run. He was seated in an aisle seat directly across from me and I had a conversation with him on how much I had enjoyed his The Sacrifice on CD. He was delighted to hear that someone here in the US knew that opera. A very nice man who said how pleased he was with Boston Lyric's production of Clemency and the audience's reception of the piece.

James Bash said...

Thanks for your comment, Will! Wow, you are a lucky fellow to have met that composer!