Reviews ...

Cultural treasures give Melrose the gift of music.

...Polymnia Christmas Concert and Melrose Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops 

Jackie Wattenberg

Polymnia Christmas Concert draws great throng

Melrose is fortunate to have right around the corner -- two fine cultural bonuses, our symphony orchestra and the Polymnia Choral Society. Their programs at this time each year are treasured Christmas gifts.

Polymnia's first concert of this season, its 49th year at that, brought the excitement of a new conductor after 12 years; Jim Reyes retired his baton last year. A program of traditional unusual Christmas music made for intriguing listening. New conductor and music director Michelle Graveline ensured an impressive opening concert by sharing the stage of St. Mary's Church with marvelous soloists -- two sopranos and a young tenor, plus seven instrumentalists whose talents immediately pricked up our ears in the ambitious opening work, Respighi's "Laud to the Nativity."

This is not a work frequently heard, full of dramatic sections, surprising close and complex harmonies and then hints of early plainsong, with unexpected chromatic movement from major to minor, and the reverse. This unpredictability made for a certain freshness for the ear. The conductor's excellent notes cite this as one of his latest works before the composer died in 1936.

Not a simple work to present, it was proffered with full sound and mastery by the chorus and those fine soloists. As Mary, mezzo soprano Danute Mileika sang with beautifully rounded, very full-throated tones always of a dark amber quality, the top of her range voluptuously rich. Amanda MacPherson portrayed the Angel with warm and resonant tones that never lost their quality whether high or low, and her high C was spectacular.

No less notable was the youthful tenor Joseph Demarest as the shepherd. His tenor is already quite powerful, bright in quality, flexible and sure in the range of the work's demands. And he injects drama in every line, with no hint of strain or forcing, and always that almost electric quality that is compelling. A voice with promise for a great future.

The chorus had been well-prepared for this challenging work, showing their mettle in all of the varied sections. Well-balanced. Occasionally their sound was a bit shadowed by the mini orchestra. But what a lovely little ensemble it was. Each player had fine chances to shine: Walter Harnie, English horn; Barbara Clement, flute; Julia Gabaldon, oboe; Dawn Petersen, bassoon, and Scott Macnair, percussion--and an amazing variety of old and exotic instruments.

In a confident and easy manner, Conductor Graveline described what was coming in the second half of the program -- Christmas songs from around the world, the audience invited to join in the final carols, which it did eagerly. The women's chorus was especially lovely in an Argentinean carol, "El Cielo Canta," and they issued a gentle sound with the purity of young girls in the Italian "Tu Scendi Delle Steele." The men were resounding and vigorous singing, in German, "O Tannenbaum," with solos in the appealing, sweet tenor of Tim Gesler.

There was interesting counterpoint in an arrangement of "What Child Is This," with an unfamiliar "Child of the Poor," the audience joining in as cued in by the conductor.

Excellent supportive piano was provided by the new pianist, David Richardson, who moved to the organ for "Stille Nacht--Silent Night."

A fascination of rare instruments enlivened the evening -- the tap-tapping clave, finger cymbals, triangle and an electronic piano, all adding to the intriguing color of the songs. Among the many vocal soloists who brightened the performance were Joseph Cesario Jr., Christina Lord, Heather Rich, and Liz Donaldson. John Averell on the recorder decorated a Puerto Rican carol.

St. Mary's Church was a spacious and handsome setting; the acoustics are fair, although some of our other halls are more accommodating to vocal sounds.

Holiday concert sparkles; gospel ensemble a big hit

They've never sounded better. The Melrose Symphony Orchestra musicians under their masterful young conductor, presenting their Holiday Pops programs last Friday and Saturday evenings to absolutely full houses in Memorial Hall, were a class act.

This was a truly festive occasion from the moment we entered on Friday evening -- red lights glowing onto the stage, great wreaths and red ribbons enriching the stage's handsome rear wall, and images of huge snowflakes mirrored on the front walls; white-clothed tables each held red poinsettias. Even the audience proffered Christmas color throughout the arena with red dresses and sweater.

Mostly Christmas music in lively arrangements, but there was also a little of Chanukah, and a performance by the Twelfth Baptist Gospel Ensemble that was a show-stopper. They exulted in a variety of songs -- peppy and rousing, and dramatic and somber. The audience went wild over them, clapping along, waving their arms; down front a few women were so captivated by the group's irresistible rhythms that they rose to dance.

A friend beside me thought she recognized Conductor Udagawa in the ensemble's lineup, and also wondered if a tall, slender, bearded man could be Christopher Lydon, the former NPR Connecticut program host, whose erudition and wit I still miss. I assured her his presence was unlikely--but she was right on one count. Udagawa is an ensemble member and performed in two songs.

The group's first song, "Total Praise," made an immediate impact through the powerful, rhapsodic voice of Monica Bullett, who can belt out tones of crashing volume or suddenly sound operatic. Director Jonathan Singleton, from his perch at the keyboard, kept his singers going at a lively and varied pace, with help from David Cowan on drums, and members of the orchestra when Udagawa turned around to draw their input. Fascinating what striking variations on a traditional carol like "Joy to the World" can accomplish with daring dynamics of rhythm and spirit.

Another star of the evening was Bill Wightman, a morning radio show host, who did a warm-hearted, nicely-casual reading of "The Night Before Christmas" to music arranged by Reiseman, an absorbing rendition well presented by the orchestra. A few little ad libs here and there were a bit distracting, but Wightman has a vigorous baritone voice that delivered every work with clarity.

The opening Christmas Festival offered a host of the popular carols in a bright and charming arrangement that the orchestra performed with freshness and finesse under Conductor Udagawa's energetic direction. The lovely Prelude to Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," featured fine French horn solos by Lisa Peterson, and an adventuresome "Jingle Bells Forever" was brightened by rapid piccolo work by Tim Bower.

The same program was performed on Saturday evening. One evening of the Holiday Pops is not enough for Melrose, which speaks well for the taste of our residents, but also attests to the talent and endearing personality of our conductor, Yoichi Udagawa, who has made the Melrose Symphony an institution of great pride. His one Christmas joke: "What is the matter with a person who does not like Santa Claus? He has Claustrophobia."

The Gospel singers made such a hit that all of their names deserve mention: Besides those mentioned above, Karen Powell Vinson, Carneice Goode, Carolyn Davies and Jeanette Catherwood.

After joyful nights like these, Symphony President Millie Rich will surely have very happy holidays.

These reviews were previously published in the Melrose Free Press on Thursday, December 19, 2002 and are reprinted here with their permission.

January 3, 2003

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