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20th-Century Christmas

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J. Deak, The Passion of Scrooge, or A Christmas Carol, W. Sharp, 20th Century Consort
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The competition for the "coveted" Holiday Concert Award here at Ionarts gets stronger each year. I have listened to many Christmas concerts over the years, and most of them fall into the dreaded chestnut category. There is obviously a market for that kind of program -- a few pieces of historical interest, a couple of obvious choices, and a carol singalong -- but we are not that market. The winners of our little contest have been concerts that favor the unfamiliar and thereby jolt the listener and shake up his jaded assumptions. A leading contender this year was the modern Christmas Carol by Jon Deak offered by the 21st Century Consort, heard on Saturday evening at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Unbeknownst to me, this was a revival of the work, brought back by popular demand.

Quite admirably, Consort director Christopher Kendall paired Deak's piece this year with Britten's evergreen Ceremony of Carols, from 1942, which turned out to be the high point of the program. Some of the best achievements of the composers in the 20th century were the result of a reconnection with pre-tonal music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages, of which Britten's recontextualization of Latin chant in this work is an excellent example. Perhaps it was the timing of the concert, just a day after twenty young voices had been silenced in a tragic school shooting in Connecticut, but this performance by the Washington National Cathedral Girl Choristers and Consort harpist Susan Robinson, clean and beautifully detailed right from the moment the young singers processed in singing the opening chant, struck just the right emotional chord. The only problem was the sound system in the auditorium, which not only buzzed and clicked at times (probably cell phone interference) but distorted the beauty of the sound.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Between romanticism and realism of Civil War, 21st Century Consort finds safe, scenic path (Washington Post, December 3)
The Deak piece, The Passion of Scrooge, or A Christmas Carol, is a sort of radio drama version of the Dickens classic. The baritone soloist, here an animated and polished William Sharp, narrates the story but also becomes many of the characters, often in conversation with members of the chamber orchestra. The instrumentalists also provide many of the sound effects, some made by the percussionist and others from the whispering, blowing, and foot stamping of the whole group. In some ways, the piece is too clever, with all kinds of coy jokes as the instruments bray and bluster, and a dissonant, 12-tone idiom that brightens toward tonality as Scrooge learns the lesson of redemption. While nothing in it stands out about it in my memory, it was a fun ride while it lasted.

The next concert from the 21st Century Consort will pair Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with music by Bruce Maccombie and Stephen Albert (February 23, 5 pm).

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