John Frayne: CUSO holiday concert mixes the traditional, the ambitious
The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra's Dec. 12 holiday program, "A Season of Joy," like most holiday season events, comes with traditional elements: Santa will appear at one point, and at the concert's climax, we will be able to join in the singing of famous Christmas carols.
But this year's CUSO concert came with an important difference in content and mood.
The opening "Overture to a Merry Christmas" by Robert Wendell fit the usually lighthearted mood, with the structure of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro," but instead of Mozart's melodies we got interpolations of well-known Christmas carols.
After that came a masterpiece, Johann Sebastian Bach's "Magnificat," a setting of the words of the Virgin Mary, telling Elizabeth, her relative, the news that she would bear the Christ child in Luke 1:46-55. Bach's setting begins and ends joyously, with trumpets and drums, clamoring in glorious Baroque outbursts. But along the way in this work are many vocal solos expressing more serious moods.
This is great music, on a distinctly higher level than the usual holiday fare. Stephen Alltop, a conductor with wide experienced in choral direction, led a very strong and moving reading of this masterpiece.
The chorus was that of Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana, and these choristers did especially well in the contrapuntal passages of this Bach work. Their director, Chester Alwes, was singing in the bass section.
In the 10th section, a portion of the Central Illinois Children's Chorus sang a "trio section," usually performed by sopranos I and II, and the alto solo. Here and later in the appearance of various age levels of this chorus, the youngsters gave evidence of their fine training by directors Charmian Bulley, Ann Marie Morrissette and Andrea Solya.
In the "Magnificat," the solo singing was on a high level, and the talented soloists were, in order of appearance, Jackline Madegwa, soprano, Aani Bourassa, soprano, Ricardo Sepulveda, baritone, Bethany Stiles, mezzo-soprano, and Nathan Taylor, tenor.
The second half of the evening contained more usual holiday pieces. After the small Baroque orchestra used in the "Magnificat," the full complement of the CUSO resounded, in fine fettle, with Dimitri Tiomkin's music from the holiday film classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."
Sepulveda, using a microphone, sang solo passages, backed up by choristers from BACH in the choral balcony. This was followed by the music written by Alan Silvestri for the film, "The Polar Express," with Alltop leading the orchestra in stirring railroad music. Matthew Naughtin's arrangement of Mykola Leontovich's "The Bell Carol" highlighted the sweet blending of the orchestra's strings.
Ronald Hedlund, professor of voice at the University of Illinois for many decades, recited the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with accompanying music by Matthew Naughtin. Without a microphone, Hedlund's words were unfortunately lost in the orchestral background.
Alltop's ambition to conduct Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" was foiled by Santa, as had been the case with Alltop's predecessor, Steven Larsen. Here, frustration is traditional.
The various groups of the children's chorus all came out on stage to join us in the "Christmas Angels Sing-along." Among the carols, I noted the absence of "Silent Night," but the addition of the famous melody from Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, under the title of "Hymn to Joy," was a welcome addition.
The sight of all the members of the children's chorus out on stage was quite touching. The "Hallelujah Chorus" from George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" made a rousing climax to this joyous occasion, and as encore, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" left a warm glow that survived the outside chill.
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 email@example.com.