Reviews ...

New Polymnia director shines in first concert

... performance projected many solo voices ...

by Jackie Wattenberg

A new mayor, a new president, a new principal -- always a challenge: will they measure up to past leaders? Will they be welcomed by those they serve? Saturday night's performance of the Polymnia Choral Society in Melrose's First Congregational Church proved beyond logical doubt that new conductor Murray Kidd knows his way around music and how to win over the singers he commands.

The program brought fine quality music, both secular and religious, opening with songs from the latter part of the last century, then a 17th century mass for Christmas by Antoine Charpentier. At close of the concert, words in the program invited the audience to join in two carols, Deck the Halls and the Twelve Days of Christmas, to which the audience responded eagerly under his cheery direction.

Throughout the program, young Mr. Kidd related interesting bits about the music, often with an easy lift of humor, which chorus members say makes rehearsals bright with fun. So this young musician is off to a flying start. A performing tenor himself, with background focused on song literature and vocal teaching, he promises interesting programs of music seldom if ever heard suited to his choral members.

A colorful element in the contemporary, free-tonality style and pleasing sounds of songs by Stephen Chatman was the eloquent oboe soaring of Jennifer Slowick, a rich complement to his songs for words of great poets. At one point where the voices were soft, the instrument almost overwhelmed them, but as voices heightened their volume, the oboe charmed the words and voices. To be sure to project the beauty of the poems, by William Blake, Tennyson, and Shelley, the conductor had a chorus member read each poem first. Without a mike, not quite enough projection, and perhaps with the church's tricky acoustics, the words were not all discernable, but the idea is a good one with such great poets on hand.

A nice contrast in mood brought interesting variety to the works, sometimes with close and gentle harmony, sometimes perky and energetic as in Blake's "Piping Down the Valleys Wild." Tennyson's "There is Sweet Music Here" was indeed sweet and reflective, the chorus blend well projecting the words above the oboe and Dorothy Travis' sensitive and always dependable piano. Shelley's lovely "Music, When Sweet Voices Die," which has inspired other composers, was by this composer given a rather dreary underscoring of angular dissonance and determined repetition of minor thirds. Still, interesting to hear.

Another American composer, Emma Lou Diemer, born in 1927, opened the program with "Three Madrigals" on texts of Shakespeare in lively and attention-holding style, more traditional in compositional form. "Take, oh take those lips away" with a gentle flow and rich close harmonies was spun nicely by the chorus, while "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more!" brought these madrigals to a hearty climax. Though somewhere in this grouping the on-target sopranos struggled for a high note, the blend of voices with conductor's attention to clarity of cutoffs and dynamics were impressive. With no powerful instruments bouncing forte off the walls, the acoustics of this small and friendly church were quite good.

The major work, embracing the season, was a "Messe de Minuit pour Noel," or Mass at Midnight for Christmas, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, an early composer who lived briefly into the 18th century, not to be confused with the well known Gustave Charpentier, composer of the opera "Louise," whose long life spanned into the 20th century. Not a familiar mass, program notes state that most of the musical-liturgical sections were based on French Christmas carols, though not familiar to us here today.

The mass brought back to us the early musical sounds of Bach's day, elegant harmonic lines, full choral richness of sound, here with the charm and simple appeal of those old carols. The opening Kyrie Eleison presented the good old skill of counterpoint for each choral section to parry with each other, accomplished well by the chorus.

The performance projected many solo voices, not easy to keep note of all of them, some with brief passages. But truly memorable was a duet in the carol "Joseph est bien marie" by Jill Goldman and Susan Stetson; their voices soared with a bronze sheen, their tones firm and blending richly, inspiring applause from the full audience.

Conductor Kidd maintained a high level of energy throughout the work, rousing climaxes and soft flowing sections, with eager responses from his chorus. The opening Kyrie starred fine solo work by Robert Eggers, Stephen Francis and Todd Millam. The dark umber tones of Elaine Steblecki were heard, as well as clear-toned soprano Eileen Christiansen, and the firm bass of Phil Kukura.

The new conductor drew a standing ovation, and delectable refreshments were served afterwards. A memorable pre-Christmas event.

December 7, 2007

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