Polymnia's Christmas gift

 ...beautiful voices in song

 by Jackie Wattenberg

    The arrival of winter last Sunday was kinder to the Polymnia Choral Society than their planned concert on Dec. 7, the day of the great blizzard. But whatever the season, Polymnia, now in its 50th season, brings to Melrose a time for fine music presented in fine hands. Now those hands belong to Michelle Graveline. In her second year in command, her Christmas concert was varied, every piece of finest quality, and featured three outstanding soloists.

    St. Mary's Church was almost full for the program, and no one could have been disappointed at the program of serious music, no frills, but lighter pieces after the opening Bach cantata and sections of an unfinished Mendelsohn oratorio. Polymnia can be counted on to offer excellent soloists, and although there were some changes because of the concert's rescheduling, the three immediately made a stunning impression: Jean Danton, a lyric-coloratura; Thomas Oesterling, a dramatic tenor, and Aaron Engebreth, a hardy deep bass.

    These dignified church works were further endowed with seven instrumentalists--violins, viola, cello, oboes and horn. The presence of these instruments is so suited to the music that we accepted their presence without reflecting that a chorus does not always delve that deeply into musical tradition.

    The chorus was at its best and once again we must cite the sopranos' early high climaxes that were stunning in their sureness and brilliance. The Bach Cantata No. 140, "Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme," took over the first half of the program, a rather solemn and handsome work presented with impressive style and balance in all parts that evidenced their careful preparation.

    Then came the soloists.

    Attractive, young soprano, Jean Danton, issued effortless floating tones in her full range, no awkward change of quality in dipping low or high. Her runs were elastic and lovely, and middle tones full and with an appealing warmth. Tenor Oesterling has the dark, firm quality of tenor that fairly sends sparks into the air, partly due to his expressive approach to convey the inherent drama in his music. But the voice itself is robust and lustrous, and when it was heard unexpectedly from the rear balcony, dramatic and stirring, it was a highlight of the performance. Bass Engebreth has a rich, coal-dark bass that is also dramatic and emotionally moving; he too commands it to convey the music line's dramatic message, especially strung in its upper ranges. Ms. Graveline chose her soloists shrewdly.

    The three sections from Mendelsohn's "Christus" were so compelling we can't help a sense of sadness that Mendelsohn died before finishing it. The men's chorus was effective in one movement, and again soprano Danton was impressive.

    Here now that names of the excellent chamber players who added so much by their steady, unwavering contribution to the program's music: violins, Nicola Takov and Angel Valchinov; viola, Svetlana Javakhyan; cello, Philip boulanger; oboes, Julia Gabaldon and Eileen Snyder, and horn, Jeanne Paella.

    For the Jewish holiday, a song with interesting repeated rhythms, MI Y'Maleil, sung in both Hebrew and English, and a more declarative "Celebrate Chanukkah" by Joel Phillipps. A "Candlelight Carol" by John Putter, whose choral music is growing ever more popular, held a sweet simplicity.

    A charming finale came with Kantor's "Night of Silence" that modulated fetchingly and wove in the themes of "Silent Night." The conductor asked former members of Polymnia in the audience to come onstage and join in singing "Silent Night," which the audience also eagerly joined.

    New pianist this year is that versatile musician Dorothy Travis, a violinist in our Symphony, who can veer from classical to overseeing the music and playing piano in our local musicals.

    Melrose lacks a theater company, but music is well served by this fine choral group, our own symphony orchestra and even a historic musical club, the Beethoven Society--happy Christmas gifts to us all.

This review was previously published in the Melrose Free Press on Thursday,
December 25, 2003 and is reprinted here with their permission.

January 2, 2004

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