Reviews ...

Polymnia heralds the season

... with beauty and charm

by Jackie Wattenberg

Some may have expected a holiday pops concert from Polymnia Choral Society on Saturday evening in Melrose's First Congregational Church.

Happily, instead, conductor Murray Kidd brought to an overflowing crowd seasonal music of highest quality in a concert called "A Victorian Christmas," which started off with excerpts from Handel's "Messiah." But a careful variety of Christmas songs followed, with attractive solo voices throughout the evening.

No matter what a listener's religion--or lack of any--may be, the "Messiah" is a masterpiece of music and so it was presented. The singers were well rehearsed and issued forth well-balanced choral quality with assured dynamics, achieving a fullness and warmth of tone that was immediately impressive.

They began with "And the Glory of the Lord," presented with both energy, respect, and occasional stunning high tones from the sopranos. "For Unto Us a Child is Born" boasted sharply formed runs and vivacity. "And Suddenly, There Was With the Angel" brought forth a suitably angelic voice in soprano Amy Stetten. Her voice has a charming delicacy but also a clarity and purity that carried well above the chorus. In this aria and in the fast rushing runs of "Rejoice Greatly," her coloratura leaped unexpectedly to alternative high embellishments with tones of diamond sharpness and beauty. An exciting new voice in our Musical city.

Also included from the "Messiah" were "And Lo, the Angel of the Lord" and "O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion." In the latter, an attractive solo by Elaine Steblecki, her voice was a smooth, warm, resonantly even contralto. This section climaxed with the famously familiar "Hallelujah Chorus," which the audience was invited to sing with the chorus, all standing up on their own--and sounding pretty darned good, too!

The second section presented a very interesting, absorbing song, "The Innkeeper's Tale," composed by Polymnia's blind tenor Danforth Larkin. There is a unique, hauntingly attractive quality to his voice--a hint of baritone overtone--which he seems to use with ease. There was lots of applause for him and his song. Another eloquently attractive tenor voice, that of Steve Francis, was briefly heard with other solo voices in "Gloria Tibi Domine" by William Davis. A nice touch of modern harmony was heard in "Angels Praise Thee" by Demetrius Spaneas, born in 1969, which was sung effectively by the women's voices. And their voices sounded notably fresh and youthful in the effervescent "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Conductor Kidd chose his songs carefully, with music from contrasting periods--some little-heard songs by last century's fine composer William Walton that were impressive, and a simple little song from 14th century Germany. In his final section, a group of his singers dramatitized the peppy little French carol "The Holly and the Ivy." Then the conductor returned to contemporary favorites such as "Let it Snow" and Jolly Old St. Nicholas." And, finally, a time for the audience sing-a-long, which the big crowd accomplished with gusto.

As always, the program was enhanced by the never-hesitating fingers of pianist Dorothy Travis, whether in simple carols or in the demanding rills of Handel. And in a couple of numbers, she dropped her hands from the piano to add a bit of percussive color with castanets.

The audience loudly applauded the holiday program, reminding us all that Melrose is lucky to have its own choral society. Choosing from scores of the world's great music, conductor Murray Kidd can add greatly to our town's cultural bounty.

We're just as lucky to have a fine symphony orchestra with dynamic conductor Yoichi Udagawa, with the traditional Holiday Pops concerts this Friday and Saturday nights.

January 7, 2011

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