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The Joys of “Christmas Music”

For us at Ionarts, Christmas season is a little like being shipwrecked on the ocean. Three days without attending a concert is akin to having gone so long without water. Not that concerts are not abound – but they are all Christmas-themed and just like the shipwrecked knows he has to resist drinking salt water, so we, too, should know better.

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Christmas with the Choral Arts Society, N. Scribner
But I was weak. With just a little friendly encouragement I was no longer able to fight the urge to go to hear some live music and hurled myself headlong into the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s Christmas Music concert at the Kennedy Center. These kinds of concerts are actually more of a challenge to review than an NSO or Royal Concertgebouw concert, because the audience, their expectations, and indeed the entire purpose of the “Christmas concert” is a very different one. To write about the latter as if that difference did not exist or matter would be useless and silly, if perhaps temporarily amusing. But then again, “ChASo” is also a very professional musical institution and deserves to be held to the highest standards of performance, ‘even’ in a Christmas concert. In order to strike a fair balance between assessing the performance for what it was supposed to be (and not to indict it on that very account) and to accept what the audience likely expected to get – instead of measuring it against an abstract and absolute standard of musical craftsmanship – it helps to have a certain amount of detachment to the goings-on on stage.

The processional with tambourine is therefore safe from my personal indignation, and children crying or a toddler’s attempt to sing a phrase that caught its fancy put a smile on my face rather than eliciting an exacerbated scoff. A wonderful O Magnum Mysterium – Gabrieli – even suggested delight waiting in the wings! But that winner was followed by a succession of less successful adventures. Washington composers and ChASo-members John Pickard and Richard Wayne Dirksen were presented to the audience with a vocal work of their own making each.

Arianna ZukermanPickard’s, set to a text of his own, took everything I don’t like about British choral writing (and none of what makes it bearable), everything that makes American “Rutter-ite” choral music sound insipid and emasculated (to my ears, at least) and then proceeded to throw in a saccharine dose of über-wholesome middle-Americana ‘we-love-Jesus’ spirit into the ghastly mix. Its crime was not even that it was outrageously bad but that it didn’t even have the guts to be bad. It was evasivley mediocre, which is even worse. One exquisite choral turn of a phrase where a second of Brucknerish gravitas interrupted the musical meaninglessness did not salvage “Beneath the Stars” for me. Even the audience, though duly applauding, doggedly resisted a standing ovation for the present composer.

Written for unaccompanied chorus and setting a fifteenth-century carol, Mr. Dirksen’s contribution was far better and failed to take off completely only because the choir’s higher registers couldn’t sing, much less sustain, a decent piano/pianissimo. Instead of ‘subtle’ they made the music sound wimpy. Followed “Noël Nouvelet” with gorgeous soprano Arianna Zukerman. For a while I thought I was just not familiar enough with historical performance practices of medieval French song, but it emerged quickly that it was just not sung well by Ms. Zukerman – and mostly straight into her score rather than the Concert Hall at that.

But it all would have been ignored and forgiven for a great -- nay, even a good -- performance of the Bach cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Normally I would overlook the petty fact that the cantata was misspelled on every occasion by an overzealous Umlaut-user (“Jauchzet Gott in allen Länden” is not only wrong but is homophonic to “Praise God in all loins” which, I believe, would be one of Bach's more secular cantatas) – but it serves so well as an example how there were things wrong with every single aspect of the cantata’s performance. The difficult trumpet part sounded, well… difficult, and Ms. Zukerman overwhelmed and underrehearsed, just like all her instrumental colleagues. Her voice was best when inaudible in a venue and work that were evidently a size or two too big for her. Perhaps the standards are different with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra or the Chattanooga Symphony or the Jackson Symphony (I am not being an ass – those are actually the highlights on her bio. OK, so I am being an ass – but I am still only quoting from the “Meet the Artist” notes), but they shouldn’t be, or at least shouldn’t be imported to Washington. Anyway, the complete mess that conductor and ChASo-founder Norman Scribner made of the Bach was a sad example of shoddy musical standards, indeed; completely unbecoming of such revered institutions as Scribner himself and his group.

The first half of the program ended with a world premiere of James Grant’s Eja! Eja!. I quote the composer from the program notes:
In the summer of 2004, Norman Scribner commissioned me to compose a “multi-purpose” work for the Choral Arts Society’s 2005 Christmas Music concert. The commission was requested for several reasons: one, to celebrate the Choral Arts Society’s Fortieth Anniversary Season; two, to honor the retirement of Fred Begun, principal timpanist with the National Symphony Orchestra and longtime friend and timpanist with the Choral Arts Society Orchestra; and three, to make full-throttled use of the Choral Arts Society’s 200 voices in a joyful Christmas romp for timpany, soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra.
He managed to fulfill all purposes. It was a romp, it was a fun work for the audience and the timpanist, and Ms. Zukerman sang much better than in the Bach. The whole thing sounded like the soundtrack to “Return of the Jedi – Christmas Edition,” but that might put it into direct neighborhood with the Korngold Violin Concerto and there is nothing wrong with that.

The second half was dedicated to celebrating sacred rhythms. It started with three parts (of a total six) of Ariel Ramírez's Navidad Nuestra, which is also included on a new disc by the Choral Arts Society (coupled with Ramírez’s Misa Criolla and the Congolese Missa Luba by Father Guida Haazen) distributed by Naxos sometime in the next few months. I vaguely remember a Jose Carreras recording. During the first part, La Anunciación, I also remembered a few East Village Mexican Restaurants (although Ramírez, it must be said, is an Argentine) where the jukebox played hits from the 70s and 80s. It is of dubious musical worth but has an undeniable fun-factor. That is, if the idea – in Los Reyes Magos – of the three wise men wearing bombachas and ponchos is alright with you. Manuel J. Meléndez, José Sacin, and Pablo Talamante were the three tenors. The Gloria from the Misa Criolla was more pleasing, still; cut from the same catchy musical cloth.

“Carols for all” was the order for the rest of the concert, including the sing-along favorites “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night” (with an amusing language lesson added as the second strophe was to be sung in Portuguese), and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle” along the way sounded rather awful, but this time Ms. Zukerman cannot be blamed because she remained completely inaudible. The inevitable Bach/Gounod Ave Maria exemplified the constant struggle between the soprano and the music, culminating in two last notes that she probably wishes she had let out with less of a shriek. Other than that, things rolled out nicely and the crowd enjoyed itself, especially the two kids next to me who played hand-held video games all along. As I left the Concert Hall, Ms. Zukerman engaged with “I wonder as I wander,” which seemed apt.


Anonymous said...

"To write about the latter as if that difference did not exist or matter would be useless and silly, if perhaps temporarily amusing. ... To strike a fair balance"

If that is your "fair balance", I don't want to read the opinion piece on this concert. "jfl" IS an ass - and the fact that I snorted hot chocolate through my nose, laughing, shows that he failed miserably here!


Princess Alpenrose said...

Wo. Don't know who anonymous/R.E. is, but ... wo, there!

These concerts are a dicey business at best. I myself (raised Catholic with all the trimmings, converted to Judaism as an adult) cannot even stand to look at the print ads, and change the radio channel this time of year to avoid all this "festive" "holiday" "junk".

For what it's worth, Renee Fleming's recital with the BSO was a complete joy, she truly brought tears to our eyes and a sweet, honest Christmasy feeling to the (nearly packed) Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The orchestra members tapped their bows on the stands after virtually every single piece she sung!

It was just so beautiful, she did THREE encores, we would NOT LET HER GO, she was was just so totally lovely, and sang so well, and we ALL sang along "Joy to the World" with her, we all really meant it. We all left HAPPY!

Kudos to jfl for braving the schlockfest, and writing about it. ps Someone should smack those kids, or rather the parents, for the videogames at concerts thing!

jfl said...

i thought i'd make it a merry commenting-free-for-all for christmas and i am already reaping the benefits.

a.) not sure if R.E. is trying to be witty and compliment me (i am inclined to think that's it - but then OF COURSE i would be so inclined) or poke me. either way i am happy: I made someone laugh and if he tried to be mean, at least i have the satisfaction of him burning his inner nostrils.

b.) i may have braved this schlock - but i am afraid that i would not have written much differently about the fleming concert which i had decided not to attend as early as the BSO schedule came out. i would have probably hung myself mid-concert, inundated by the perfection of someting i can't stand in the least. at least in this concert i had legitimate gripes about the performance.

c.) those kids amused me, rather. i can't complain about the concert and then be outraged that some kids weren't paying attention to it. their video games and key-pads were silent, at least - and they were occupied. the brats, however, wouldn't let me play with their console... and for that they should be smacked!


cheers and happy christmas. and for non-christians of course: SUCKERS! (Of course I am kidding. Come Christmas we are all Christians... so infused by the commercial spirit that we even had to make up names for christmas in other religions and non-religions. Is anyone struck by the irony that the very secularizing of a formerly pagan feast and then secondary religious holiday made that holiday such a cultural force that other religions responded and sacrinized (new word!) and over-emphasized their third- and fourth-rate holy-days (or made them up, entirely; I don't know which is worse) only to participate in the whole shpiel without having to nominally refer to another religion? anyway, i digress. best Saturnalia, Yule, Mithrassash or whatnot-wishes.

Akimon Azuki said...

dear JFL,
you forgot the most important function of Xmas in US: purchasing s&$t! What would happen if the masses did not buy all this junk (Made in China), would the economy collapse, Black Monday , Yellow Tuesday, who knows... As Chris Rock said, there's nothing like the worship at the altar of the ATM. hey I did my part by getting lots of CDs from Tower Rs and ordering from the US site of Harmonia Mundi rather than the French site- that would have been, like, unpatriotic, no?
In a basic sense, it's time off work and that's good enough for me. It would be nice to be in Poland, where there are no gifts, just three days of sitting around with your family and leating lots of food, but right now I am trying to find Xmas cheer in that dull Met broadcast, too bad the Tragedy sounds like wobbly, third rate Kurt Weil so far. Mr Husband is worshipping at the altar of NFL (Redskins vs Giants.) Mr Cat is, pardon the French, licking his balls. Xmas is many things to many creatures.
and Renay Fleming - oh dear, we have watched that PBS special of "Sacred Cheese" all right. She is truly La Saccharina! That's how I feel about her:
with that frondy thought, very merry X$$mas to Ionarts and their tireless work on putting the u in music, or whatever is the mission objective >:)

Princess Alpenrose said...

For the record, I had problems with the early part of Renee (can't anyone spell?)'s holiday concert at the Meyerhoff, and am not a complete fan, due to certain technical vocal qualms about her production in her lower register. I admire her, yes, but "La Saccharina" is apt sometimes as well.

But if Jens had actually attended & hung himself at halftime, he woulda missed some spectacular and very heartfelt and truly beautiful singing, on that particular occasion.

The entire audience, a full house (which ionarts has been nagging about for months!) was delighted, and as I said before, the orchestra was very impressed, clapping in their way after each piece.

My little critique stands, because I was actually there. Jens couldn't be bothered, and you weren't there either, akimon.

BIG MEMO TO IONARTS & IONARTS COMMENTERS: Just because you saw/heard something on a recording, downloaded something or saw a DVD (= Renee Fleming Sacred Songs), and just because you saw an opera production in the house two weeks prior, or took your toddler to the little kiddie version (=Porgy & Bess), DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU HEARD/SAW THE SAME PERFORMANCE on another night live (=Renee Holiday with the BSO or Porgy at the National Mall with 12,999 other people simulcast while sitting on a picnic blanket). I was there, you guys weren't. Your loss.

Please remember that live performances are different each night and in each venue! Let Jens say what he heard that night and let me or others say what we heard on another night. (And ps DVDs and recordings do not count as having seen or heard that performer live. Not even close.)

Anonymous said...

we are so glad to have you had that clarified for us. "Re-nay" i think is not a mis-spelling but poking fun at her pronunciation. the fact remains that tastes differ and something that you might like we might not and vice versa. that doesn't mean we are not happy for you when you sit on your blanket for p&b or are carried away into wonderful sound worlds courtesy mlle. fleming...

getting good use out of critics, by the way, is not by thinking that their taste is identical with yours, but knowing how and what they react to. that way you could know you might like something because we don't - or not, because we do.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Duh! Of course I knew you guys were making fun of her by deliberately misspelling her name!
You're not the first ones to do so, hope you know. "Renay" or "Renaaaaay" as it is on some other blogs. Obviously you didn't know I was making fun of YOU!

Thanks btw for your continuing condescension. It's so Germanic and refreshing. Gack.

I obviously do maximize the use of critics since I continue to read your blog.

I read your blog, fyi, because you guys at ionarts generally (a) went to concerts I did not go to and (b) are generally quite extraordinarily knowledgeable about music (c) generally write rather exceptionally well and (d) generally have interesting and (duh again) unique viewpoints. Why else would I keep reading?

I don't want your taste to be identical, Jens. I don't read to read my own thoughts. I read to read YOURS, to learn about a concert YOU attended. You're the professional critic here, right?

You obviously missed my point. So I'll give it to you again. Ready?

Going to the concert hall version or the kiddie version or seeing a DVD does not qualify as having been at any given concert. Period.

Akimon Azuki said...

well, duh, Renee=Renay because according to Renee Fleming Daphne is pronounced Daphnay, as you can hear for yourself on that Tree Frog recording of Daphne. Also, the PBS special we watched on channel 26 WETA last week was a taped live concert (with few extra staged bits) at the Mainz cathedral (ze German one, ja.) It was actually fun, whenever she would make that smiley face and that yawny tone crept into her voice, we would break out singing "When the moon is up high, like a big pizza pie..." and we laughed our heads off at Renay's mangled up Handel (she should stick to Strauss, or Handel will crawl out of his grave and strangle her- remember what he did to Cuzzoni) and her truly spectacular lipsyncing of Bernstain's Simple Song. But, if I ever had to pay money to hear her sing, I would not be laughing. Good to hear she's filling concert halls, but Andrea Bocelli will still sell lot more stadium tickets than her, and at least he is honest about his schmaltzy ways. I have set my TiVo to record his PBS special tonight, I have never heard him in concert, will try and compare. To each his peach, no?
am watching Bollywood TV special now. what a merry Xmas

Princess Alpenrose said...

Her technique on the Strauss CD has problems, too, though. Same with the Handel, although less so. It's a vocal technical problem. She needs to do some work on her middle register.

Lipsynching? That's just horrid!

But she didn't sell out the hall and Baltimore didn't love her for saccharine or schmaltzy singing, not that night anyway.

I keep wondering if she's making too many CDs too fast in succession. Not enough time to work on her technique, to rehearse with the conductor and the orchestra, etc.?

For instance, I really did not like the orchestra's clunky approach in the Sacred Songs CD. (That's where at least half of the "cheese" was coming from, in my opinion.)

Do you all think she should slow down on recording so much, so quickly? Or is there something else going on? What do you think?

Akimon Azuki said...

I honestly don't give much thought to Renay's doings- as long as she stays away from Handel, too bad about Met's Rodelinda- but I think she should stop recording, period. From what I hear, when curbed by a good conductor, she can deliver a relatively unfussy, unmannered and enjoyable live performance, and it would possible be an easier option for her label to release the DVDs of her live performance. Having said, that, the Fleming cultus seems content to hear anything- and I mean anything she puts out on record, as long as it's sung by the Beautifoool Voice. And Decca is not about to stop their Sacred Cash Cow when she's on the roll.
sad but true

Anonymous said...

'have yourself a bitchy little Christmas' - aah. Good Reading.