Holiday tunes—you know them. “O Little Town,” “Hark the Herald,” “God Rest Ye,” and so on. They don’t usually make for innovative seasonal concerts. They’re meant to lift the spirits, not stretch the musical mind.
Except when you put them in the hands of clever arrangers. In the hierarchy of the music world, performers come first, then composers. Arrangers—who take music and mold it for other instruments, or re-imagine it with different rhythms and textures—rarely get any recognition.
But music director Joseph Marcio focused the spotlight on several arrangers who have invested holiday standards with beautiful energy, and the resulting program on Sunday afternoon, when his Chatham Chorale sang works transformed by Dan Forrest, Mack Wilberg and others, turned a basic seasonal celebration into a musical adventure.
Marcio’s Chorale—nearly 100 singers, filling the small, square United Methodist Church with booming sound—were joined by the Quartett Giocosa, keyboardist Donald Enos, and additional supporting instrumentalists. There were no major works on the program, but the dozen or so selections each stood out in various ways.
Mack Wilberg’s name may not resonate with even the most avid music lover, but his work with “The First Noel” and “Joy to the World” fit splendidly into Marcio’s singing voices and instrumental choices. “The First Noel” opened with the robust men’s voices, accompanied by an oboe solo line (Cape Symphony principal Elizabeth Mitnik Doriss). Piano (Enos, doing double duty throughout on organ as well), and the quartet joined in, as did the women of the chorus, who took over the second verse.
The ensemble sang in full force in the third verse, accompanied by a sweet oboe/violin (Heather Goodchild Wade) duet, and a short viola solo (Irina Naryschkova) accompanied the cadence. In one brief holiday favorite, nearly all the performers got a moment to shine.
Select members of the chorale, who specialize in singing early repertory, offered understated readings of “Who Are These Like Stars Appearing” and “In the Bleak Midwinter,” both introspective and articulate. An obligatory selection from “Messiah”—no holiday vocal program exists without dabbling in Handel’s great oratorio—“For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” spotlighted a men’s coloratura section that was also well turned.
The men, far outnumbered in the chorale, sang with vigor and precision. They were sometimes overwhelmed by the women’s voices, as, unfortunately, was the string quartet, when the chorale was singing at full volume.
But not all the time. One selection for the quartet, the scherzo from Borodin’s D major, showed lots of promise from this recently formed ensemble of Cape Symphony string players. Instrumental support from Doriss, Enos, trumpeter Andy Harms and percussionist Mark Prall provided tasteful accompaniment.
Additional arrangements by Forrest—an almost arrhythmic version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” truly innovative, as well as a setting of “Little Town of Bethlehem” that grew in complexity—as well as David Willcocks and David Herman also helped transform this holiday program into something unique.
Reaching out to music that needed no re-arrangement at all, the chorus sang Schubert’s C major Magnificat, and the chamber singers offered a nice reading of Heinrich Schütz’s “Cantate Domino.” In all it was a spirited holiday program that captured the seasonal mood, and brought a bit of innovation along with it.
The next Chatham Chorale program will be Songs I Learned at the Movies on March 23 an 24 in the Brewster Baptist Church, 1848 Main St., Brewster. Visit www.chathamchorale.org or call 714-212-9333.