Sunday, December 11, 2011

First Baptist Church in Washington holds largest Christmas concert ever; Arlington Church performs Britten; notes on NYC "Sleeping Giants"

Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011 was a big day for church Christmas concerts.  And this year two concerts provided a valuable exposure to modern classical music.

The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA presented the thirty-minute cantata “A Ceremony of Carols”, Op. 28, by Benjamin Britten (1942), for three –part female chorus. Soloists, and a big harp, based on a book of medieval poems, “The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems” by Gerald Bullett, in eleven sections (processional, recessional in Latin, nine poems in varying forms of Old English – more challenging than what we had to read in high school literature).   Trinity offered adult male voices from age 16-70, doubling the parts in unison, so the effect was to give the sound more bass and sense of mass.  The harp Interlude is quite substantial, like a piano prelude, a bit pastoral.  I think William and Catherine probably know this piece well, but I don't think it go selected for "The Wedding".

The minister, in a Children’s story, explained the significance of Gaudete Sunday, when the pink Advent candle is lit. This is a time when people may need encouragement, even of a personal nature, she said. 

At 4 PM today, the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC gave its largest Christmas Candlelight service ever.  The service ran longer, about 95 minutes, and included more music of a modern concert nature, certainly trying to attract the interest of the DC music community. 

The service opened with a first-ever instrumental section.  Dr. Lawrence Schreiber performed an organ “sonatina” called “Il est ne le devin enfant” by Marcel Dupre, ending in a majestic but conventional fugue.  (Remember that composer’s notorious and bombastic “Cortege e Litanie”?)  The Brass Ensembles and Handbell choirs alternated groups of familiar carols, mostly arranged by Jim Lucas.

The conventional carol service followed,, with "O Come All Ye Faithful" as the processional.  (I was ready for Sir Hubert Parry's "I Was Glad" -- really; It's loud, and virile!)  But it would quickly offer major highlights. The offertory was a piano solo “Noel Novelette” by Emma Lou Diemer,  performed by Lawrence Schreiber.

The Runnymede Singers (Facebook site), conducted by Cory S. David, performed carols by John Rutter  (“Candlelight Carol”) and Mark Miller (“Christ Is Born”). 

The Friday Morning Music Club Chorale  (link for club) performed “Sweet was the song” by Jay Althouse, and then some plainsong.   I recall the Club from piano lessons in the 1950s. 

The service closed with Deborah Miller, soprano, and the combined choirs singing the closing passages from The Christmas Cantata, bringing the event to a rousing (or perhaps rowdy) close.  “There will be dissonance, there will be polytonality, there will be constant tension in the music.”  The final fortissimo chord has a dissonant note in it. 

One year ago today, which was Saturday Dec. 11, 2010, I “Amtaked” to NYC to hear a pre-purchased concert in which Timo Andres performed his “It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer” (as I recall, sponsored by the Metropolis Ensemble). Today, I found his discussion of its relationship to Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” on a “Sleeping Giants” page at WQXR, here. The comment that Schumann was at his best with miniatures and wrote in “fractals” is interesting.  (An onion is an example of a fractal, isn't it?  But so is a tree.  Maybe self-similarity generates entire universes.) Schumann is not Brahms, he is Schumann – but he could turn on grandeur with big forms sometimes: the big Piano C Major Fantasy (yes, the March is a "miniature"), and my favorite Second Symphony (C Major) – not just the famous Romanza, but the telescopic Finale, which attains incredible grandeur at the end with very simple manipulations of a very personal theme (it was probably a song).  

My own mother, then 97, had gone into a Hospice the day before (Dec. 10) – but I made the Concert with a one day trip, the concert experience (overlooking Central Park, almost literally) becoming a kind of personal memorial. The closing of the Schumann #2, through the Hospice bedside sound system, with me there, was the last music she would hear.  She would pass away Dec. 14.  

I’ve gotten to know Timo's “Shy and Mighty” from the Nonesuch CD over the past year and a half, and I now think the work is really stronger if played at once, and that it ought to be choreographed.  A one-hour ballet experience with a two-piano suite in many short movements, all stylistically and philosophically related, makes real sense to me.   (No, there’s no part for a “Black Swan”, and it’s not quite a “Rite of Spring” – although Stravinsky’s ballet sounds very compelling on the piano, actually – as movies about it have shown.) This might be the best way to get it more performances, especially on college campuses, and outside NYC.   There are many small choreography collaborations around the country. I even remember, in ninth grade, that my chorus teacher had composed a piece called "Ballet Music" which she brought in one time and played for me.

Readers may enjoy this blog posting from June 2011, "Get Classical" -- discussion of doing both performing and composing (after introducing the "Ecstatic Music Festival").

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