Monday, December 16, 2013

New Amsterdam Singers - A Ceremony of Britten: Carols, Hymns, and Lullabies - 12/15/13

Music Director & Conductor: Clara Longstretch
Britten: A. M. D. G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam)
Britten: A Shepherd's Carol
Britten: A Wealdon Trio (The Song of the Women)
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 - Frances Duffy (Harp)
Milhaud: Psaume 121
Biebl: Ave Maria - Richard Bonsall, Nathaniel Granor, Nate Mickelson (Soloists), Robert Thorpe, Scott Wilson, Mike Landy (Trio)
Appalachian Carol: I Wonder as I Wander (Arr. John Jacob Niles) - Andy James (Tenor)
Britten: A Hymn to the Virgin
Susa: Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest - Frances Duffy (Harp), Stephen Benson (Guitar), William Trigg (Marimba and Vibraphone)

Although "A Cantori Holiday" is typically my only concession to holiday concerts, I just could not let this season go by without attending one performance of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols, especially since it is understandably being played all over the city these days, so that I could conclude the British composer's centennial year in the most appropriate way possible. In the end I decided on the New Amsterdam Singers on the Upper East Side late afternoon yesterday for the relatively convenient time and location, of course, and most of all, for the solid reputation of the well-established choir and the fact that the Ceremony of Carols would be paired with its official companion piece, Conrad Susa's Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest.
After walking across a Central Park that was more of a soupy mess than the winter wonderland I had hoped for, I met up with my friend Linden at the beautiful Immanuel Lutheran Church, whose most striking features were dark wood structures and ornaments, brightly colored stained-glass windows and a large Christmas tree classily adorned with white lights. The space eventually filled up literally up to the ceiling, and we were off to our second holiday concert of the weekend.

The first three pieces were songs inspired by religious as well as secular texts, and written for mixed chorus and for women alone, that Britten composed between the age of 16 and 31. The chorus on the stage may have been reduced, but it was nevertheless perfectly capable of conveying the various moods of the small-scale works in all their many subtleties.
Put together for Christmas 1942 when Britten was at sea between the US and England, A Ceremony of Carols was originally meant for a treble chorus, soloists and a harp. Yesterday evening, however, circumstances oblige, the ladies of the New Amsterdam Singers filled in for the boy sopranos. The twelve movements of the full cycle are loosely unified and roughly range from sweet and ethereal when it comes to Mary and her newborn child, to the fierce intensity of Satan's appearance, to the joy brought by spring and gratitude towards God. The intrinsic simplicity of the English poems provided an excellent basis to Britten's challenging composition, and the singers delivered a remarkably clear and lyrical performance of it. Even if by default it did not have the unique purity of trebles' voices, the complex tapestry of sounds we heard yesterday - and that would include the virtuosic harp - was superbly expressive, with "The Little Babe" unmistakably standing out as the gasp-inducing tour de force.
After intermission, it was the gentlemen's turn to come out in full force for three male-only works. After Milhaud's "Psaume 121", a rather upbeat psalm, I was delighted to get a chance to hear Biebl's "Ave Maria" for the second time in two days. The New Amsterdam Singers is a much larger choir than Cantori New York, but their setting was plainly conventional, so while their sound was fuller, its distribution was also more ordinary. Regardless of those respective differences, yesterday this stunning hymn came out once again as the timeless masterpiece it is. The last piece was the Appalachian carol "I Wonder as I Wander", which gave tenor Andy James the perfect opportunity to display his considerable vocal skills.
After the ladies had joined the gentlemen to finally form the whole chorus for the first time that evening, we went back to Britten with "A Hymn to the Virgin", which divided the singers into the full chorus singing in English and a smaller chorus singing in Latin. Written when he was only 17 and eventually sung at his funeral, this well-balanced work was all freshness and unfussiness, even when brought to life by the impressive wall of sound created by so many voices.
The companion piece to Britten's fundamentally serious-minded Ceremony of Carols are Susa's generally light-hearted Carols and Lullabies, which also add the more populist guitar, marimba and vibraphone to the high-brow harp. Those ten songs, which are to be performed in Catalan and North American Spanish, are mostly Nativity scenes and lullabies. Some are serene, others are full of energy, but they all sounded unabashedly bright and colorful after all the unabated churchiness that had preceded them.
When all had been sung and done, we still got a fun little encore, and then we were off into the cold dark night, our holiday music duties duly completed for another 51 weeks.

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