Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/14/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
French Franciscan Processional: Veni, veni, Emmanuel (Arr. David Willcocks)
Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks)
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Dutch Carol: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
J.H. Hopkins: We Three Kings (Arr. David Willcocks) - Joey Mele, Joel Klein, Julien Touafek (Singers)
French Carol: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks)
German Carol: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming (Arr. M. Praetorius)
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech Legaresh - Jason Wirth (Conductor), Danny Campbell (Tambourine)
French Carol: Sing We Now of Christmas (Arr. Fred Prentice)
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas - Jason Wirth (Piano)
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Alice Joscelyn (Soprano)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night - Jason Wirth (Conductor)
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls (Arr. David Willcocks)
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium - Emily Klonowski (Conductor)
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam Isaac
Albeniz: Malagueña - Jason Wirth (Solo piano)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria - Jonathan Breit, Nathan Benavides (Soloists), Steve Underhill, Erol Gurol, Steve Albert (Trio)
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

As we are rapidly reaching the middle of December, the holiday season has been shifting into full gear with its never-ending parade of shopping, eating, drinking and Christmas caroling. While I happily mingle with old and new friends over food and drinks, I deliberately stay away from crowded stores and holiday concerts, but I also make one exception in the spirit of the season and, maybe first of foremost, for the proven fun of it.
Fact is, if I must hear some jingle f*** bells yet one more time, they might as well be performed by Cantori New York since I am practically assured that those will not be just ordinary bells. Not to mention that there will be plenty of other predictable and unpredictable delectable goodies too. So never mind the myriad of other tempting concerts happening around town and the snow mercilessly falling since morning, late afternoon yesterday an unusually large contingent from work eagerly converged to the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the Village for the ever-popular annual Cantori Holiday concert.

Although experience had taught me that in all likelihood the concert would be an eclectic mix of recurring and new pieces, including unavoidable Christmas carols, old Europeans tunes and the occasional Hanukkah song, it started with the rather conventional ancient hymn "Veni, veni, Emmanuel". I happen to be more familiar with instrumental versions of it, but I found that the chorus' expert multi-layered singing added a powerful and poignant human dimension to the beautifully elegiac work.
Although we were all gathered in an Episcopal church and the main theme was by default Christmas, this year again one of the undisputed highlights of the whole evening was what has to be the sexiest Hanukkah song ever, Jonathan Breit's "Ocho Kandelikas", which, benefitting from Jason Wirth's virtuosic contribution at the piano, enthralled the audience with its irresistible upbeat vibes and sensual tango-infused rhythms.
The two other Hanukkah pieces, "Banu Choshech" and "Ravta et Rivam", did not even come close to being as blazingly hot, but they nevertheless stood out on their own, more subdued, merit and provided a refreshing break from the Christmassy overload.   
Another work I was very much looking forward to hearing again was Biebl's male-only "Ave Maria", during which chorus and soloists sang from the stage and the trio from the back while Mark Shapiro conducted half-way in between. And sure enough, the gentlemen of Cantori were once again utterly successful in bringing out the organic beauty of the richly textured composition.
The mini-European tour was as fully enjoyable as I remembered it with readily engaging tunes from the Basque country with "Gabriel's Message", Holland with "King Jesus Hath a Garden", Germany with "Lo, How a Rose", England with "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree", featuring a lovely solo by Amy Joscelyn, and France with "Sing We Now of Christmas", and the one that never fails to bring back some seriously old memories, "Shepherds in the Field Abiding".
For one reason or another, Wales and the West Country of England produced two of the most annoyingly perky carols ever, namely "Deck the Halls" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", but I knew that I could trust Cantori to make them at least bearable, which they obligingly did without batting as much as an eyelid.
"Jingle Bells", which may very well have the dubious honor of being the most ubiquitous and exasperating Christmas songs of all times, was vastly improved thanks to a much needed sobering up treatment as well as Jason Wirth and Erol Gurol's high-flying piano four-hands turn.
Wirth later came back on his own for an instrumental interlude with "Malagueña" by Isaac Albeniz. This unexpected detour in Spain significantly boosted the festive mood with seductive melodies and spirited rhythms, cheerfully pointing out that this was all about a celebration after all.
The American classics "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", "I'll be home for Christmas" and "This Christmas Night", which were sprinkled throughout the concert, came and went rather inconspicuously, which was really as good as it could have gotten.
While there is no doubt that shaking up entrenched traditions can be a laudable endeavor, some of them are simply too good not to keep, so choir and audience eventually concluded the concert together by joining forces for the time-honored "Silent Night" sing along under the imperturbable baton of Mark Shapiro. The result was unsurprisingly uneven, but we did not let the difference in singing competence stop us from bonding some more during the hopping reception afterwards. Happy Holidays!

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