Reviews ...

Polymnia Choral Society takes on jazz

... with a jazz band and the Melrose High School chorus

by Jackie Wattenberg

Article reprinted by permission of Melrose Free Press, March 25, 2010.

Well, healthcare can change, the Catholic Church can change, Massachusetts senatorial politics can change — so why not Polymnia?

Last Sunday, the Polymnia Choral Society — long a devotee of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms with Spring Pops acknowledging Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Cole Porter with traditional settings — took a hot lick to jazz! Last Sunday’s concert, in our handsome new Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School auditorium, brought a full crowd that welcomed almost every number of Mark Kross’s jazz band with gleeful whistles and “whoops!”

There’s always excitement in scheduling new works and, on Sunday, conductor Murray Kidd brought several. The program opened artfully with a lovely violin solo by Julie Leven in poignant Jewish minor mode, leading into “R’tzei,” a Jewish prayer by Stoneham resident and Polymnia member Jill Goldman. The prayer was delicate and appealing, setting the stage for further Jewish messages, appropriate for the coming of Passover at the end of this month.

Next came “Five Hebrew Love Songs” by Eric Whitacre. The chorus intoned the solemn, legato lines with handsomely balanced dark quality expressive of the texts. One song, “What Snow?” suggested the humming of bees, a fascinating surprise. Program notes tell us that eventually the composer did indeed marry the girl for whom he had earlier composed these sensitive love songs.

On to the jazz cantata, “Sayings of the Fathers” (also known as” Sayings of the Sages”) by Mark Kross, an ambitious work in which the composer relates that he strives to express meanings of the code of laws governing Jewish life.

“But I have used an interpretation that reflects the Judaic belief that righteousness transcends the boundaries of religion,” Kross said.

In the dim lighting of the auditorium, it was difficult to keep reading the printed texts, but many were striking: “By three things is the world preserved: Be fair and just, speak the truth, and give your life to increasing peace.”

These are serious words, worth a cantata. The singers were obviously enjoying the choruses; the jazz band was terrific in its interludes. The joyful cheers of the audience would seem to indicate that they were not taking the words seriously, or just not realizing what the words the singers were issuing meant. Maybe it’s just not easy to express profound thoughts in jazz forms, especially when your jazz players delight your audience to joyful cheers sans solemn thoughts.

Composer Kross played the piano, and his jazz players came in and out of the performance. Many of the choruses were similar, almost all less jazzy than the instrumentalist parts. The singers, both Polymnia and the Melrose High School chorus, which participated a little too, sang with gusto and spirit, smiling all the while. Often the songs were quite like folk songs, not rhythmically distinctive until the instrumentalists joined in, and then the singing was less audible.

There were quietly moving moments. “What is the Right Path?” opened darkly, a man’s voice asking his question. Danforth Larkin’s repeated question over a hushed background was compelling, his striking voice haunting — a serious highlight of the performance. There were many soloists, some troubled a little with high notes and intonation. Maybe it would have taken an Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne to put the songs over, but then the songs would have to be in a lower key.

As anyone in the audience would have said, the jazz band was great! Here the names that cannot convey their color and jazz-band spark: Phil Person, on trumpet; Billy Novik, on alto sax, clarinet, and soprano sax; John Pierce, trombone; Paul Ahlstrand, baritone sax, clarinet, and alto sax; and Mark Pucci on bass.

The capable hands of pianist Dorothy Travis were busy during the first part of this program.

Polymnia starts its season with a Christmas concert of holiday music, usually with a mixture of classical and popular. The final spring pops concert is, of course, devoted to popular music; this spring, they’re planning a jazz band. Nearby towns don’t boast a good chorus like ours, and we should value our chorus, plus our marvelous Melrose Symphony Orchestra.

However, Bach’s glorious passions, works of Beethoven, Handel, Fauré, Verdi, Brahms, and contemporary composers are little heard around here. New works deserve to be heard, but these old masters must be remembered too. We look forward to seeing what the young conductor Murray Kidd will bring us next year.

Jackie Wattenberg is a Melrose resident and is the arts correspondent for the Free Press

April 2, 2010

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