Reviews ...

Polymnia draws standing room only

... starting off the Christmas season

by Jackie Wattenberg

Polymnia Choral Society’s first performance of the season drew standing room only in our First Congregational Church last Saturday evening. Audience seats were within hugging distance of the singers, not good for hearing the combined sound of this fine chorus.

The program began impressively with solos by an unfamiliar and impressive baritone, Dana Whiteside, in the fresh and compelling songs from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.” The singer possesses a richly dark-toned baritone of full easeful range, a tone of distinctive tree-bark richness and strength, and he rose to passionate climaxes as well as pianissimo gentleness. Ready to continue his program, conductor Murray Kidd had to lower his baton until the audience finally ended applause for this show-stopping baritone who has a background of singing classical works all over Boston and New England, from Mahler to Bach, a long and ambitious journey.

The program continued then with lighter music of the holiday season, nothing spectacular, nothing ill performed. This chorus is able to do a lot with little, and they put over the usual holiday fare with ease and occasional solos, including an interesting cello part by Polymnia member Erica Finn in the opening selection.

A group of songs under “Early America” was the most interesting — a distinctive and moving little African American spiritual titled “Mary Had a Baby.” The group ended with the moving, distinctive song by 19th century composer John Jacob Niles, “I Wonder as I Wander,” Mr. Whiteside was welcomed back for this one.

As always, in obeisance to Jewish people and their imminent celebration of Chanukah, we heard the usual “Chanukah Suite” by Jason Robert Brown. This is a lively rhythmic piece notable here for appealing solos by four members: Joseph Cesario, Scott Best, Peggie Morris and Taylor Rubbins.

The full house of enthusiastic listeners rose respectfully to sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” — I would have preferred hearing the chorus perform this one, since there were few serious works on the program and they could have done it with response to its power and rhythms.

The program included a whole group of popular Christmas carols, with Vicki Schubert adding an attractive warm segment to “Winter Wonderland.” These were carols we hear every Christmas in shopping malls, on our radio while driving, in our churches and clubs. No doubt many members of the audience enjoyed hearing them, but at least a few would have enjoyed something more special and inspiring than “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” But judging by the spirit with which they sang Meredith Willson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” maybe the chorus loyals enjoyed presenting these old favorites. The choral singers and audience were all on their toes grabbing onto the verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

As always, pianist Dorothy Travis provided solid support, occasionally offering lively piano passages that brightened the choral lines.

My childhood held no religion, and Christmas consisted of a colorful Christmas tree and lots of gifts. Later, when I began singing as a church soloist, I grew familiar with the religious aspects of the carols and oratorios; the Bach and Handel works dealing with Christian issues were accepted for their great musical value.

But now our country has citizens of many cultures and religions, and the religious aspects of many carols can be unsettling. Polymnia offers only three programs each year, two light and popular, only one serious. With such a notable chorus and a talented conductor (and fine singer himself), we could hope for more challenging programs.

January 6, 2012

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