Reviews ...

Polymnia singers brighten the season

... with the solace of great music

by Jackie Wattenberg

Forget your personal problems, job stress, cutbacks in city programs, national policies, impatience with snows here and snows still to come - in the glory of music!  

Polymnia Choral Society’s delightful almost-spring program Saturday evening in First Congregational Church's welcoming chamber demonstrated once again how lucky we here in Melrose are to have a symphony orchestra and a choral society, both of fine quality, to bring us the solace of great music. Add to this the monthly programs of the long-established Beethoven Society.

A large, quietly attentive audience stood at the Polymnia  concert’s end to show conductor Michelle Graveline appreciation for a bright concert of a  Bach cantata and African-American spirituals, all presented with a nice variety in mood and tempo, accomplished singers, and even a small chamber orchestra along with regular pianist-organist Dorothy Travis.

The spirituals occupied the second half of the program, a wonderful chance to hear a few unfamiliar songs, as well as time to appreciate the distinctive, eloquent, often  poignant nature of this early music, well described in the conductor’s notes in the program. Each song was given effective dynamics to  emphasize its message and beauty of line, the opening “His Name So Sweet” delicate and quiet. Most effective, perhaps, was the dramatic “Hush! Somebody’s Callin’ My Name,” with a warm, vibrant-voiced solo by Peggy Robinson.

The energy and exuberance of many spirituals were realized fully by the singers, who seemed to enjoy this music’s special quality, often without glancing at their music folders. “Ride the Chariot” was one of the peppiest, the conductor first telling us that many spiritual words held double meaning - the “chariot” referring to the wagon that could take the slaves up north to freedom.

An unexpected pulse of energy  was added to “Keep Your Lamps!” by the fast-tapping  but unobtrusive beat of  drummer Scott Macnair, also one of Polymnia’s tenors. A dozen of the men, newly organized into a group called “Blue of a Kind,” came forward to sing one of the most beautiful of all spirituals, “Steal Away.” High tenors brought a surprising discant here in clear and firm tones, the setting both dramatic and rich in the tune’s harmonies.

Worthy of note is that the singers projected the words with sharp emphasis so we could catch almost all of the important words of these moving early songs.
One can hardly go wrong with Bach, suited to any season or celebration, surely for approaching Easter. And the concert’s opening sinfonia by the chamber orchestra, richly warm and soothing, invited us to ease into Bach’s mood of reverence and counterpoint, a travel back in time to the 1700’s, long before be-bop or jazz or the dissonance of Shostakovich could have been dreamed of. Yet Bach’s innovations are as respected today, perhaps more than in his own world, studied in all music schools and even influential to our composers.

This cantata BWV4, "Christ lag in Todes Banden," or "Christ Lay in Death’s Prison," is one of his earliest. The first vocal sound, the choral fantasy, presented the shimmering sopranos whose quality and range up to the highest climaxes never fail. The balance of all sections was quite good, the conductor appreciative of the dynamics to project the meaning of the texts. The cantata was sung in the original German - no mean feat.

The work offered many opportunities for solos by chorus members. The first was a striking duet by soprano Susan Stetson and contralto Taylor Rubbins. The soprano‘s lovely clear quality and  the alto’s strong tones were interesting in contrast, but the lower voice could have been softened a bit for better balance. Robert Eggers’ tenor seemed to be of pleasing quality, but since he was facing sideways rather than facing where we sat, we did not catch the full timbre of his voice.

Christina Lord, who has been singing solos with Polymnia for some years now, offered an impressive solo, her voice grown in strength, her full range in fine control, and high notes stunning. The baritone of Joseph Cesario, though not powerful, was intriguing in its dark warmth and suppleness, and Matthew Clancy’s tenor was bright and expressive. Interesting to note is that not one of the soloists had the flaw of a tremolo - unsteady tones, which are surprisingly heard in almost each of the Met broadcasts this season.

The modern style of this church is attractive, and its open, fan-shaped seating friendly and welcoming. But the acoustics are unpredictable. I could not hear the spoken words unless the speaker was facing me directly. When the chorus was achieving some powerful forte tones, especially sopranos, the sound blasted sharply. This is not a reflection on the chorus - the sound of high climaxes is to be desired and enjoyed. Something about those attractive but unresponsive brick walls, acommodating to spoken voices in a meeting or church service, usually with a mike, but tricky for a choral concert.

Sunday afternoon brought another musical highlight to Melrose, a meeting of the Beethoven Society that elated viewers of performing string  musicians: Bill Morris, guitarist-composer; Alice Duffy, Irish singer and Irish harp player, and John Bumstead, cellist, with violinists Peter Stickel and Lisa Kempskie.

April 1, 2005

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