|Raffaella Aleotti:||Angelus ad Pastores Ait|
|Samuel Scheidt:||A Child is Born in Bethlehem|
|Franz Biebl:||Ave Maria|
|Charpentier:||Ten Carols from Midnight Mass|
|Handel:||"Hallelujah, Amen" from Judas Maccabeus|
|Britten:||A Ceremony of Carols|
Heidi Lehwalder, harp
Theodore Reinke, piano
Eric Townell, conductor
The Festival Choir managed to pack Bethel Lutheran Church's enormous chapel for a varied program that was enthusiastically performed and enthusiastically received. Joining the choir's singers, music director Eric Townell and accompanist Theodore Reinke was harpist Heidi Lehwalder. The program was dedicated to the memory of David Crosby, who directed the ensemble for 18 years, beginning in 1974.
The program was well conceived, dominated by Christmas fare from various periods. Entering in the center of the chapel, the choir, clad in Elizabethan costumes began with Angelus ad Pastores Ait, by Raffaella Aleotti. It's quite a nice piece, apparently from the Italian Renaissance period. Proceeding to the front of the chapel for the remainder of the program, they continued with Samuel Scheidt's responsory A Child is Born in Bethlehem, followed by a setting of Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, a work in mostly archaic polyphonic style by a more modern composer. The tour of the Continent next landed in France, with ten carols from Charpentier's Midnight Mass. These pieces cover a wide stylistic range. The first half closed with a tribute to Crosby, in which former members of the choir joined the ensemble for the "Hallelujah, Amen" from Handel's Judas Maccabeus.
Switching during the intermission to regular formal dress, the group next offered the evening's major work, A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, with Lehwalder as accompanist and soloist. It's a truly wonderful set of pieces, artfully balancing traditional and modern musical idioms, Latin and archaic English texts and particularly effective choral writing. It's also extremely difficult, not least for the harpist, but certainly for the singers, who sometimes must find their pitches in rather thick harmonic textures.
On the whole, the music was satisfyingly performed. That the diction was far from crisp I attribute in part to the very diffuse acoustic of the cavernous space. Under such conditions the consonants need lots more energy than in more intimate surroundings. But there was also, especially in quicker pieces, a fair amount of rhythmic clutter, and that was more troublesome. Lehwalder very ably managed some extremely tricky music, and both singers and audience seemed enlivened by her energetic manner. One great plus for the choir, I think, was that they looked lively and were clearly enjoying making the music. And indeed it was enjoyable.
Isthmus, December, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson