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Holiday Cheer

December 16, 2008

Christmas time is here, by golly. Time to mix a punch of Baroque orchestral music, sacred vocal music of various periods, and a medley of Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs. That's what the New Century Chamber Orchestra served up for its December concerts last weekend. I heard Friday's performance at First United Methodist Church, the "concrete tent," in downtown Palo Alto.

New Century Chamber Orchestra

It would do anybody's heart good to hear soprano Melody Moore sing the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen's hauntingly beautiful setting of the old Latin text O magnum mysterium. (The composer's voice-and-piano version of this motet was tastefully arranged for voice and string orchestra by NCCO's "Featured Composer" of the season, Clarice Assad.) Moore has a remarkably controlled voice that goes from meltingly soft to the height of emotion and projection without strain. Her full vibrato is so constant that it becomes a feature of her tone and not an effect. This was a riveting performance, with the touch of a memorable rendition of one of the great Italian tragic opera arias.

Fine sounds also came from the 16 singers of Schola Cantorum San Francisco. Their artistic director, Paul Flight, led them in two short a cappella Noel motets by Renaissance composers Pedro de Cristo and Antoine Brumel. He then joined the other two male altos in the chorus for a somewhat larger choral work with orchestra, by Buxtehude, Das neugeborne Kindelein. All three works were light and cheerful — Cristo's Quaeramus cum pastoribus (Let us seek with the shepherds) was particularly light, as it has no bass part — with a pure, clean tone and rich balanced harmonies. Brumel's full contrapuntal setting of the single word Noe (Noel) was the finest of the works.

The grand finale involved everybody — solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra — in a medley of holiday songs chosen by NCCO Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and arranged by Assad. The 10 carols, songs, and blessings in six languages covered various forms of the Christmas and Hanukkah spirit. Some pagan solstice carols, and maybe a few Kwanzaa songs, would have made it even more ecumenical, but we take what we can get.

This medley was complex enough that Salerno-Sonnenberg had to conduct parts of it outright instead of just leading with her bow while playing the concertmaster's part, as she otherwise did. Assad put a lot of imagination into the vocal and instrumental arrangements. The violins uttered donkey brays à la Saint-Saëns or Mendelssohn at the reference to the manger in In dulci jubilo, and the 1950s Caribbean-style Christmas song Mary's Little Boy Child slowly runs out of steam at the end, like Villa-Lobos' Little Train of Caipira. The performance was comfortable and enjoyable — Moore was especially moving in the Hanukkah candle-lighting blessing — but the singers were not as commanding as in their core repertoire. The gentility that served them so well in the sacred motets doesn't really fly in lively Christmas songs and carols like Mary's Little Boy Child or Deck the Halls.
Sparkling Handel
The instrumental half of the program featured two of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos: a gentle performance of No. 5 and a bustling one of No. 2. Salerno-Sonnenberg praises her orchestra's "unique way with Bach," but she's the one who has a unique way with that composer. She led the orchestra in a conventional and satisfactory if not overly exciting manner — what was exciting here was a bang-up, sparkling prelude of the "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba" sinfonia from Handel's Solomon, with especially colorful work from the oboeists, Laura Griffiths and Robin May — but her style as violin soloist in both concertos took some getting used to. Her dry, uninflected tone, with strange swoops and emphases, was out of keeping with the orchestra and the rest of the soloists, as well.

These soloists were all also orchestra members. Griffiths as oboeist in No. 2 and Jan Ketchum as flutist in both works sounded buried beneath the orchestra, though they played well enough. Bill Williams, on a long-bore clarino trumpet in No. 2, also handled his part with confidence, but his sound was far too prominent. Jung-Hae Kim's imaginative alternation of the harpsichord stops did carry through the orchestra. Her long cadenza in No. 5 was not lacking in wrong notes, yet it showed a real sensitivity to Bach's phrasings.

The best soloist in the Bach may well have been principal cellist Robin Bonnell playing the continuo, especially exposed as he was in the minimally scored slow movement of No. 5. His tone was as pure as Schola Cantorum's, and he provided a solid foundation for his colleagues to dance over.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.