John Frayne: Choral concert a true joy to behold

Tradition reigns supreme in just about everything associated with Christmas, and the annual Baroque Christmas Concert at Holy Cross Church is no exception.

The University Laboratory High School Madrigals, directed by Richard Murphy, will give a warm-up performance of jolly and tuneful carols, mostly from the Elizabethan period, and in the final part of the program, we in the audience will join our mostly amateur voices in verses of Christmas choruses, in which the name of Michael Praetorius stands out.

But this year there were some novelties. Chester W. Alwes, director of Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana decided that the main events of the first part of the program would not be by stars of the Baroque period such as Johann Sebastian Bach or George Frideric Handel, but rather by composers new to most members of the audience.

And these lesser luminaries of the period were Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1661-1756) and Giacomo Antonio Perti (1661-1756).

The Uni Madrigals, 17 strong, opened the program with a melodious and varied selection of carols, from the peaceful lullaby style of the older carols to the rollicking style of carols of today. As usual, these young singers gave admirable attention to the nuances of the texts being sung.

Of the two "novelty" composers, both are well known to "Grove's Dictionary" but have not yet made a dent in the multitudinous recordings of baroque music.

Zachow had the distinction of being the first teacher of that giant of the baroque, Handel. The Zachow work, a setting of six verses of meditations on the Nativity, began with the text "Von Himmel kam der Engel Schar" ("From heav'n the angelic host appeared to the shepherds."). Zachow's settings featured well-sung solos by Audrey Vallance, soprano, Chris Holman, countertenor, Lee Steiner, tenor, and Daniel Borup, bass. The work concluded with strong choral singing by the BACH chorus.

The Perti work, a 1682 "Magnificat" for four soloists, was a much more varied and brilliant work. The verses of the text, which express the reactions of the Virgin Mary to the angel's news that she will bear the Christ child, are familiar from the great setting by J.S. Bach.

Perti's setting offers a variety of moods for his singers to express, including very difficult coloratura passages that Vallance negotiated with skill. Other soloists who contributed admirably to the total effect were Holman, countertenor, Steiner, tenor, and Alwes, who laid aside his baton to sing bass.

This work was energetically conducted by Andrea Solya, particularly during the brilliant trick endings that brought forth fine singing from the BACH chorus. The trumpets also were outstanding at the joyous conclusion, and Aaron Romm and Jennifer Brown were called upon for solo bows.

Many of the shorter numbers in the second half of the program were familiar to regular attendees of these concerts, and some had complicated shifts of singers.

The opening number of this second part was Praetorius' setting of the chorale "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" ("Savior of the heathen, come."), and individual verses were sung by men or women of the BACH chorus, one chorus by the UniMadrigals from the choir loft, and we in the audience were invited to join in the last verse.

Amid all these Baroque rejoicings, one chorus by the 19th century composer Johannes Brahms stood out. His setting of the verses beginning "O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf" ("O Savior, throw open the heavens") contained violent craggy music that I found well nigh overwhelming. The performance of the BACH chorus was suitably fierce in the third verse but compassionate in the fourth, consoling, verse.

Near the end of the program, Laurie Mathieson, associate music director of BACH, skillfully conducted William Byrd's delicate Elizabethan setting of "Alleluia. Ave Maria-Virga Jesse Floruit" ("Hallelujah. Hail Mary-The Rod of Jesse has blossomed").

Whether "Joy to the World," which concluded the program, is only attributed to Handel or not, it is certainly glorious to sing before going out to brave the chill of a December night.

By the way, I counted four soloists at this BACH concert who had played prominent roles in the C-U Symphony Holiday Concert earlier in the week. And who knows how many BACH choristers were in the choral balcony at the C-U Symphony concert? It's a singing time of year!

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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