Reviews ...

Polymnia previews Christmas

... handsomely

by Jackie Wattenberg

How lucky we in Melrose are -- we herald the holiday season with its great music brought by our Symphony Orchestra this Saturday evening, and by Polymnia Choral Society last Saturday evening to a very full house in St. Mary's elegant, choral-friendly church.

In its "Winter Wonderland" concert, Polymnia seemed to boast a more balanced, vibrantly rich sound than ever, tenors firmer and unafraid. Conductor Michelle Graveline chose a bright, light and warmly received program that concluded with the audience joining in "Silent Night" and "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," always a nice touch.

A colorful cantata dramatizing Dylan Thomas' eloquent "A Child's Christmas in Wales," composed in 2002 by Matthew Harris, began the performance. The music strolled leisurely, chattily and dramatically through the tale's subjects -- Years and Years Ago, One Christmas was so much like Another, The Uncles, the Useful and Useless Presents, etc. Since words are always hard to grasp in a chorus, the complete text was printed, in rather small letters, in the program. Much of the music held a spontaneity, unpredictable fortissimos, freely moving tonalities and even surprising spoken lines that are rare, but effective against a musical texture.
A dramatically essential part of this presentation was a group of instruments --
spunky percussion to emphasize the yourthful shenanigans, lovely harp so rarely heard around town, violins, oboe, flute, piccolo and, as usual, the always supportive, expressive Dorothy Travis on piano.

The second part of the program brought refreshingly unfamiliar songs, opening with an early madrigal by Thomas Weelkes, "To Shorten Winter's Sadness," surely a hoped-for event! This music held a valuable shift in time from the opening cantata, and once more showed off the soprano's ethereal tones. There was a lovely "The Winter Rose" by Joseph Martin and a staccato "Good King Wenceslas" with an interesting solos by Joseph Cesario and Elleen Christiansen.

A now very popular contemporary composer who is not this writer's favorite, John Rutter, was represented by a more than usually interesting piece to words of "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind," from Shakespeare's "As You Like It," in which the tenors resounded handsomely. Not to leave out the good rumbling basses and always-dependable altos. "In the Bleak Midwinter," with lovely words by Christina Rossetti, turned out to be different from the beautiful traditional melody, but was interesting if not as magical.

There was a grand array of soloists; the instrumentalists sparking the opening cantata were lively percussionist Len Simboski; Judith Ross, lovely on her harp; a really admirable oboe solo by Kyoko Hida-Battaglia; Nicole O'Toole, sharp with both piccolo and flute; Claire and Madeleine Stout, violins.

Among the outstanding vocal soloists were Elaine Steblecki, Dan Larkin, Skip Kiley and Philip Kukura, whose bass-baritone has an intriguing appeal.

Ms. Graveline's program brought a deserved standing ovation. A few of us wished that the church's lights had been lowered to enhance the performers' domain, and soften the viewers environment.

Reprinted with permission from the Melrose Free Press

January 5, 2007

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