GLIMPSES OF AN ENGLISH CHRISTMAS:
Just ahead of their England tour, Anthony Blake Clark led Baltimore Choral Arts in a festive program of holiday music in the great cathedral tradition.
by Patrick D. McCoy
On Tuesday night at the Baltimore Basilica, Baltimore Choral Arts presented its 36th Annual Christmas program. Complete with the majesty of the organ and the compliment of a full orchestra, conductor Anthony Blake Clark curated a festive musical evening that celebrated the works of English composers Benjamin Britten, John Rutter, Sir. David Willcocks and notably Stephen Cleobury who died in November.
There was a nostalgic air felt as the patrons packed the great space for the holiday tradition. Alternating in roles as narrators were Judith Krummeck and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. The program began with the fourth movement of Victor Hely Hutchinson’s “Carol Symphony.” Performing perhaps the composer’s most popular holiday work, Blake led the orchestra in this music portrait, quoting themes from beloved favorites such as “Here We Come A Wassailing” and “Adeste Fidelis.”
Traditional carols followed by the choir. The advent carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” set by the conductor was a reverent musical expression that presented a mood of contemplation. There were numerous opportunities for the audience to lift their voices throughout the evening. The expansive carol arrangements by Sir David Willcocks were sprinkled throughout. His arrangements of “The First Nowell,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” especially allowed the musical forces to truly unite in a grand, musical statement. With the rich choral harmonies, soaring descants and the orchestra supported by the masterful organ accompaniment of Leo Wanenchak, there was a swell of Christmas excitement that was readily felt.
The contemporary English composer John Rutter was well represented. His setting of the carol “Joy to the World” was a festive Baroque treatment of the classic carol. With contrapuntal like passages and the pronounced festivity of the trumpets, there was certainly a Handelian flair that would also reappear towards the end of the concert. It is worthy of mention that the beloved carol celebrates its 300th (1719) anniversary. A wonderful contrast in the program was the spirited “Have You Seen the Baby Jesus” by the African-American composer Rosephanyne (RO-ZEH-FUH-NEE) Powell. The a cappella piece was written in the style of a spiritual and ushered in a level of excitement, modulating as the soprano soloist Juliana Marin soared above the voices.
An instrumental holiday delight came in the form of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from the beloved “Nutcracker.” The quick, sprightly tempo charmed the audience and fully engaged the holiday crowd. Creating a lovely Christmas scena was the choice of the “Pifa,” “Recitative” and chorus “Glory to God” from Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.” Blake conducted the “Pifa” at an interestingly quick tempo, while soprano Sarah Berger offered a seraphic soprano that led into the radiant chorus.
As the program neared its close, the classic “O Holy Night” arranged by David Clydesdale with soloist Anitra McKinney and the rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah provided the concert’s finale.
*The program was taped live for television and is scheduled to be aired on Christmas Eve at 11:30 p.m. and Christmas Day at Noon on WMAR-TV. Additionally, it will be broadcast on 88.1, WYPR Radio and 91.5 FM as well as WBJC Radio. Please look for the schedule of broadcasts in your local listings.
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, including The Washington Post, Early Music America Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, CBS Washington and Examiner.com. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., The American Choral Directors’ Association, a member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors and a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD. Visit http://www.patrickdmccoy.com