A BURST OF JOY: In their first holiday gala concert as artistic director, Dr. Jace Kaholokula Saplan led The Choral Arts Society of Washington in a program of both familiar and new seasonal gems in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall
(PHOTOS: Shannon Finney Photography)
by Patrick D. McCoy
With any tradition, especially one that has been going on as long as The Choral Arts Society of Washington Annual Holiday Gala and Concert, there is bound to be hallmark staples that people grow to love and often resist any change to. So it is only natural to reflect on what has happened in the past. On Monday night, the concert was marked by its customary holiday elegance: the women in their most glamorous of gowns and the men equally handsome, suited in their finest formal wear. The hall was filled to capacity with a welcomed roar of sound that symbolized a very full house! Just a hint being beyond the clutches of COVID, it was indeed wonderful to witness such a burgeoning concert audience. His Excellency, André Haspels, Dutch Ambassador to the United States and his wife Bernie Grootenboer were in attendance as honorary gala patrons on behalf of His Excellency Stavros Lambrinidis and his wife Phoebe Kapouano who were unable to attend.
The anticipation of the audience was rewarded with the entrance on stage of conductor Jace Saplan. With an energetic carriage in their stride, the ebullience of the audience met its equal, hence enveloping the stage with a magnetic presence. Riding that wave of excitement, the program began with the whimsical accompaniment of the traditional “Sussex Carol” in a new arrangement to the line-up by University of Utah’s Director of Choral Studies Barlow Bradford. With the voices of the chorus riding on the lilting of the strings, the work found its climatic ark with the punctuating brass and cymbals. This set the tone for the rest of the program and gave that holiday “feel good” to the audience. Guest artist bass-baritone Carl DuPont joined the chorus for the spiritual “Mary Had A Baby” by William Levi Dawson of the great Tuskegee University legacy and “Joseph’s Carol” by the modern day statesman of English Cathedral music Sir John Rutter. Both pieces were a warm, tender contrast to the big opening of the concert.
One drawback was the balance in the beginning between the soloist and chorus, which was later remedied as the concert progressed. Closing the set was the return of the full chorus in a majestic treatment of the traditional carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by John Paul Hayward. Now, this was definitely where you could feel the reminiscing back to the days of past concerts in which the audience had an active role of participation. The swell of the onstage voices, the majesty of the full orchestra, particularly the brass certainly screamed “sing with us,” but that was not the direction taken for this particular Choral Arts concert. Perhaps, there is still a hesitancy in the abundance of audience singing in addition to the chorus in the acknowledgement of the fact that COVID has returned in high numbers. Was the format by design? Maybe next year’s holiday gala will engage more audience participation, but we will have to wait and see.
What is very promising is the way in which Saplan embraced the traditional holiday repertoire and added a fresh touch by way of perhaps ‘new’ arrangements to DC audiences-among those was the arrangement of “Still, Still, Still” by Matthew Culloton. This is where the lush beauty of Carl DuPont’s voice was in its full element, wrapping around the legato lines of the chorus like a cashmere blanket. And what gives more sparkle to the holidays than new gems! The ethereal setting of the age old Latin text “Veni Creator Spiritus” by Zanaida Robles, with its probing rhythmic lines in alternation with the words “Come Holy Spirit” gave a new dimension to the traditional plainsong. Likewise, “Ring the Bells!” by Rosephanye Powell was a joyful ode to peace and harmony with voices and instruments all united in what was like a musical statement of agreement.
A special joy of the holiday are often voices of children. The Choral Arts Youth Chorus under the direction of Associate Conductor Brandon Straub performed two carols: “Carol of the Bells” arranged by Barlow Bradford and “Huron Carol” arr. Robert Anderson. Both fresh settings of the familiar carols were greeted with enthusiastic applause from the full house.
The adored carol “O Holy Night” provided the inspiration for the gala’s tagline “O Night Divine.” With its soaring, ascending lines, further enhanced by the fresh harmonic material, this arrangement by Gary Fry brought something very new to a beloved favorite.
Rounding out the program was the singing of “Silent Night” in several different languages as an expression of diversity and the expansive arrangement of “Joy to the World” by Mack Wilberg. With the promise of joy reflected in the majesty of the brass, the voices, along with the full orchestra brought the evening to its close.
One of the main lessons of the pandemic was the aspect of being impactful and concise all at the same time. The seamless of the program, the sense of moving ahead and the thoughtfulness of the chosen repertoire lent itself to an enjoyable evening.
A native of Petersburg, VA, Patrick holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and a MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory. Formerly the Performing Arts Columnist for Washington Life Magazine, he currently is a freelance writer, publishing articles for several noted publications and organizations, including The Washington Post, Early Music America, Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, Prince George’s Suite Magazine, CBS Washington and Examiner.com. Most recently, he was named as a new contributor to Washington Classical Classical Review. He holds membership in the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., American Choral Directors’ Association, Association of Anglican Musicians, a former member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors, a member of the Shenandoah University Black Alumni Network and a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Just recently he was named to the Dean’s Circle of the Shenandoah Conservatory Advisory Board. He serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD and is Interim Director of Choral Activities and Instructor of Music at Virginia State University. Visit http://patrickdmccoy.com and follow him on twitter @PatrickDMcCoy, IG: PDM06. and subscribe to “Across the Arts” on YouTube.