Reviews ...

Polymnia plus orchestra wins applause

... on a Sunday afternoon

by Jackie Wattenberg

Choosing a Sunday afternoon instead of Saturday night; bringing in a small, stunning orchestra; and choosing a rarely heard requiem by Michael Hayden--all in the respected acoustics of St. Mary's Church in Melrose--Polymnia Choral Society Director Murray Kidd presented his group at its best. And the audience, more numerous than usual, responded with standing ovations.

Implanted into this bounty were four fine soloists in the requiem, who each managed to soar over the chorus and musicians with clarity and respect of style for this early classical requiem. This work, which this writer had never heard before, was the effort of Michael Haydn, brother of the more famed Franz Josef, whose influence could be discerned. But also a hint of Mozart's Requiem to come--the greatest of them all--in the counterpoint voices and contrasts in tempo and mood changes. The fully documented, compelling notes told us that this Haydn had been friendly and generous with the younger just rising Mozart.

With quick tempo runs and climaxes to challenge the instrumentalists' power, the singers held their own in following the insistent beat of their director. With full brass, of course, there was some subduing of the choral sound. But Kidd was insistent with his challenging beat, and the singers responded with deference and spirit.

After first hearing them, we eagerly awaited segments from each of the excellent soloists: Renowned bass, Donald Wilkinson, whose dark umber tones are strong and arresting, and so impressive that he has performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, all over the world, and on many recordings. Tenor Matthew Corcoran, whose voice has freshness and warmth and a range to high notes that is unhesitant. He is still a student at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, but has already performed widely around this area. The soprano of Amy Stetten, now a member of Polymnia, boasts a sparkling brightness and a deceptive light surprise by always being heard above the throng of voices and the orchestra. And mezzo-soprano Eileen Christiansen, in the alto part, whose voice flows with ease and burnished russets in its commanding range.

The voices of Wilkinson and Corcoran were beautiful, assured and stirring, an especially impressive blend in their duets; memorably moving was a section from the offertory, "Quam olim Abrahae." We wanted more and more of their duets.

The 17-member orchestra was an exception to typical Polymnia programs, and while almost startling at first, it was a welcome exception in its quality and color. The brass may have intimidated some of the singers, but the trumpets of Robinson Pyle, Chris Belluscio, Tony Gimenez, and Jonah Kappra were a vibrant power in the presentation, as well as the trombones of Joe McEtrick, Peter Charig, and Tim Kelly.

The program began with operatic selections, beginning with the lovely "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," from Verdi's "Nabucco," a smooth and nicely done beginning. Mascagni's chorus from "Cavalleria Rusticana" was gently done, with a short solo by a fresh young voice, new member and soloist Amy Stetten.

Notable in the first half of the concert were two colorful arias by mezzo-soprano Christiansen, formerly a Polymnia member and now pursuing a career as a soloist. "My Heart Opens at Your Voice," a popular solo from Saint-Saens' "Samson and Dalila," was her opener. The singer has an attractive, darkly toned voice capable of rising with ease and opulence to high-range climaxes and she maintained a restraint and rhythmic flow suitable for this serene aria.

Next came the drama of Carmen's "Habenera" by Bizet, a nice change of pace. Christiansen's mezzo was suited to this aria, warmly sustaining the rhythmic color of the aria's audacity. While she might have injected a bit more reckless abandon into her portrayal of this hussy, and added dramatic chest tones to her vocal interpretation, the audience gave her performance welcoming applause.

Director Kidd gave us a well-rounded program--a seldom heard requiem with superb soloists, an orchestra for added color, and a solo performer for a touch of opera. There was even a reception afterwards with, I suspect, the usual Polymnia delicacies. The day was not warm, but there was no snow and not a drop of rain.

This article is reprinted by permission from the Melrose Free Press, March 24, 2011.

April 1, 2011

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