Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/15/18

Mark Shapiro: Music Director & Conductor 
Piano: Baron Fenwick 
Benjamin Britten: Welcome Yole 
Herbert Howells: Here is the Little Door 
Al HaNisim (arr. Elliott Levine) 
Coventry Carol (arr. Robert Shaw) 
French Melody: Ding Dong Merrily on High (arr. Charles Wood) 
Old English Carol: Blessed be That Maid Marie (setting: Crawford R. Thoburn) 
Philip Lasser: Sing Christmas 
Felix Mendelssohn: Weihnachten 
Shepherds in the Field Abiding (arr. David Willcocks) 
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas 
Spanish Carol: A la Nanita Nana (arr. Norman Luboff) 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Paul Carey & Sherri Lasko: Unending Flame 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Leroy Anderson & Mitchell Parish: Sleigh Ride (arr. Andy Beck) 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
African Noel (arr. André J. Thomas) 
West Indian Spiritual: The Virgin had a Baby Boy (arr. Robert de Cormier) 
Amy Beach: Around the Manger 
Guillaume Dufay: Ave regina caelorum 
English Carol: The Twelve Days of Christmas (arr. John Rutter)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (arr. David Willcocks) 
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria 
West Country Carol: We wish you a Merry Christmas (arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along) 

Like clockwork, the holidays are upon us again, and so were Cantori New York’s two holiday concerts in the choir’s home base, the West Village’s church of St. Luke in the Fields, last weekend. In the true spirit of the season, the traditionally untraditional program could be expected to indiscriminatingly include regular and new, popular and obscure holiday songs from many places around the world, which is bound to make everybody happy at least at some point.
As I generally try to stay away as much as possible from the holidays’ mandatory sentimentality and blatant over-consumerism, but still feel the need to do something in the name of togetherness and open-mindedness, Cantori’s concerts allow me to fully partake into the season’s rituals for a couple of hours, and enjoy it too. Even if the compositions chosen for the occasion may not be as challenging as the fearless choir's usual fare (But then again, what is?), they are often worth knowing, and the singing remains of the highest caliber because they simply won’t settle for less.
On Saturday afternoon, the relentless rain finally stopped, which felt like a small miracle, and the notoriously unreliable MTA trains were running smoothly, which felt like a huge miracle. With all the stars apparently aligning, I happily headed down to the Village to meet my friend Francesca, and squeezed in with her into the packed little church.

Although some holiday songs were pretty much unavoidable (I am looking straight at the “Jingle Bells”, which have been jingling all the way for as long as I have been attending the concert), other works were new to the program, some of them being whole-heartedly welcome (How nice to see you here, Herr Mendelssohn!) others less so (If we must have them, could you at least shorten “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which often feel like twelve long years in hell?).
The concert started appropriately when the choir resolutely hit the ground running with Benjamin Britten’s bright and joyful “Welcome Yole”, and it would indeed have been hard to get things rolling in better company. The first half of the program went on with a few traditional Christmas carols in English, as well as recurring Cantori favorite “Al Hanisim”, which stood out as a vibrant nod not only to Hanukah, but to engaging holiday music as well.
Things shifted into high gear right before the intermission as the audience was treated to a glorious multi-lingual, multi-cultural triple bang that is likely to stay in Cantori’s annals for posterity. First came Felix Mendelssohn’s “Weihnachten”, a subtly multi-layered and intensely luminous motet that spontaneously lifted everybody’s spirits. “Shepherds in the Field Abiding”, that other recurring Cantori favorite by English conductor, organist and music educator Sir David Willcocks’, was next and worked its magic flawlessly one more time.
To top it all off, we celebrated the long-overdue return of former Cantori member Jonathan Breit’s hot hot hot hymn to Hanukah “Ocho Kandelikas”, which cheekily and splendidly filled the austere Episcopal church with irresistible Latin rhythms and a fierce piano cadenza courtesy of the electrified singers and their brilliant accompanist Baron Fenwick. The holidays had probably never sounded so sexy in there. I had been waiting three long years for this, and the experience was in fact so satisfying that I seriously considered leaving right after it was over because, let’s face it, things could not get any better.
I stayed, and while things did not get any better (No doubt I had reached my quota of miracles for the day), there were still some truly enjoyable moments, such as the angelic voices of the Every Voice Children’s Chorus confidently singing the Spanish carol “A la Nanita Nana”, the Hanukah song “Unending Flame”, and the fun-loving standard “Sleigh Ride”. And all of this, sans score in hand (Just saying).
Among some other highlights of the second half of the program was also French composer Guillaume Dufay’s “Ave regina caelorum”, an ethereally beautiful antiphon from the early Renaissance that was expertly sung by the winning trio of Eleanor Killiam, Ben Keiper and Joseph Holley-Beaver. Another irrefutable proof that, sometimes, less is really more.
 Not to be outdone, German composer Franz Biebl’s all-male “Ave Maria”, that other other recurring Cantori favorite, brought some serene beauty to the concert as well as a welcome respite from the piercing perkiness of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (Nice try, but I am still firmly in the haters’ camp), “Jingle Bells” (Only Cantori can make this one palatable) and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (I wish that that one had just disappeared into oblivion already).
The performance ended with the traditional “Silent Night” sing along, and if this year Cantori had included the words of their second verse in the program, they also had added a twist to it by having them in German, which pretty much guaranteed that the vast majority of the audience would not butt into their part, and it worked. Then everybody got together for the party, where goodies of all sorts were up for grabs. Happy Holidays!

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