MASTER CHORALE PRESENTS VOCIFEROUS HOLIDAY CONCERT
By Lawrence Budmen
What better way to celebrate the holidays than with the sounds of vociferous chorale singing and pealing brass! From the first bars of "Deus in Adjutorium" by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) the Master Chorale of South Florida and the world renowned Empire Brass poured forth a joyous noise at their "Singing in the Season" concert on November 21 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami.
The University of Miami Phillip and Patricia Frost School of School of Music's Director of Choral Studies Jo-Michael Scheibe is one of America's great choral directors and one of South Florida's real musical treasures. Scheibe was director of the Florida Philharmonic Chorus for four seasons. When the orchestra was dissolved (via a declaration of bankruptcy), the chorus resolved to remain intact as a performing organization. The Master Chorale was born. Only a conductor of Scheibe's vision, versatility, and musical insight could have made this happen. He is an innovative programmer who always seeks out contemporary repertoire and arrangements with unconventional orchestrations. Scheibe's holiday concert was a wonderful feast of Christmas and Chanukah music from five centuries.
Monteverdi was the father of opera. His 17th century operatic masterpieces ("Orfeo," "The Coronation of Poppea," and "The Return of Ulysses") continue to be revelations to 2ist century audiences. His "Vespers" is one of the first divinely inspired large scale liturgical works. (Perhaps Scheibe and the Master Chorale can bring this masterpiece to South Florida.) "Deus in Adjutorium" is a celebratory ode to God. The rich, full voiced sonority of the Master Chorale and the brilliant antiphonal fanfares of the Empire Brass were the essence of holiday joy!
The Empire players (Rolf Smedvig and Marc Reese, Trumpets; Mark Hetzler, Trombone; Kenneth Amis, Tuba; and Michelle Perry, French Horn) preceded the Monteverdi with a dazzling version of the 16th century "Basse Danse Bergeret" by Tylman Susato - the ultimate celebration of blaring brass. They also played a mellifluous version of "In Dolce Jubilo" and a delightfully florid arrangement of "The First Noel." Kenneth Amis's tuba solo was simply amazing! Who could imagine that a tuba player could play a melodic line with such warm tonal glow? The brass players shone brilliantly in two dances from Act 2 of Tchaikovsky's perennial holiday classic ballet "The Nutcracker." The Empire Brass's newest member Michelle Perry (an alumnus of Miami's New World Symphony) revealed a mellow, golden horn tone and breathtaking technique in the extended horn solo of "Danse Arabe." The entire ensemble played with vivacious energy in the high lying bravura of "Danse Russe." Amis's new carol "Bell Tones Ring" was a terrific addition to the repertoire. A majestic melody with chromatic harmonics highlights a carol that is both joyous and contemporary. Amis and his colleagues played this gem with suave brio.
In less than a decade "O Magnum Mysterium" by Morten Lauridsen (1943- ) has become a pillar of the standard choral repertoire. This deeply moving work is both reverent and emotional. The sheer beauty of the choral part singing that Scheibe evoked was divine! "The Gift Carol" was an imaginatively modernist setting by Bob Chilcott of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" (which was used so memorably by Aaron Copland in his ballet score "Appalachian Spring.") Scheibe's magical direction called forth choral singing of sheer vocal velvet! Organist Mark Husey and harpist Mark Spencer provided delicate, musically fluent support. "What Sweeter Music" was a charming holiday bon-bon by the British choral giant John Rutter (1945- ). Scheibe's singers sang the rollicking Ukrainian carol "Shcho to za prevido" with subtly modulated dynamics, tonal sweetness, and flowing line. A setting by Robert Summer for two part women's chorus of the Bach-Schubert "Ave Maria" was heavenly! Scheibe drew ethereal, shimmering sounds from his wonderfully responsive forces! A master!
The Chanukah song "B'tal'lei Orah" by Benjamin Maissne (1944- ) was presented in a powerful new arrangement by Sid Rabinovitch. Tenor Steven Fowler sang the cantorial solo with virile tone, vocal security, and fervor. Rolf Smedvig provided a blazing trumpet accompaniment. Deeply stirring! Michael Issacson's "Light the Legend" (with full brass ensemble) seemed to dance in a vociferous celebration of Chanukah joy. "Hodie Christus Natus est" by the Venetian master Giovanni Gabrieli (155-1612) was a rousing affirmation of peace and good will - replete with brass flourishes. Tenor Anthony Cabrera was tonally weak and vocally deficient in Mel Torme's immortal "Christmas Song" but sleigh bells rang out in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" by George Wyle and an intricate version of "Jingle Bells" by the great British choral director Sir David Willcocks (longtime conductor of the choir at King's College, Cambridge). The Dennis Janzer- Tom Mitchell arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" featured spirited ensemble singing and witty, dissonant brass harmonies.
As an encore Scheibe offered a rousing, uplifting version of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah" with virtuosic brass playing by the Empire players and rotund percussion salvos by Douglas Friend and Fred Wickstrom. The Master Chorale's official motto is "Music that moves you." Scheibe and his terrific singers offered a moving, joyous afternoon of music that traversed classicism, folk traditions, and Hollywood - the perfect musical translation of Happy Holidays!