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A full plate of holiday music in Bethel

BETHEL — To get into a holiday mood, the place to be on Sunday afternoon was St. Mary’s Church. There the Connecticut Master Chorale, under its founder and director Tina Johns Heidrich, came to seasonal life. Its "Holiday Prelude Concert” presented 17 different works, one of which had five parts to it! Suffice to say, it was an overly full plate of choral offerings.

The vast majority of compositions were from contemporary American or English composers. By the end of the two-hour program one wished for more variety of style, perhaps some carols from other countries, something from the baroque, maybe something even humorous.

There were two familiar Christmas carols. "Angels We Have Heard on High” was presented in an arrangement, enjoyable with the chorale’s unusually crisp delivery. "The First Noel” had Pachebel’s "Canon” as counterpoint, delivered nicely by flutists Margie Aldrich and May Steinberg. Clever it was, but I found myself flipping mentally back and forth between the carol’s melody and Pachebel’s.

Ending the first half was the major piece on the program, "An American Christmas,” a medley of American Christmas songs arranged by Randall Stroope. It began and ended with the words of the carol "O Come All Ye Faithful,” but sung instead to an Aaron Copland melody. In between were four other tunes, including "I Wonder as I Wander,” a North Carolina revivalist melody, and "Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker hymn. (Copland used it in "Appalachian Spring.”) Especially lovely was the solo of Patricia Alworth in "The Star Carol.”

As predicted by Heidrich in her program notes, the final measures of "An American Christmas” were spectacular. With increasing tension and drive in the music, there came a sudden pause, then a blazing fortissimo chord. With such intensity, it might well have served as the concluding work to the concert.

The second half began with fascinating multicultural mass segments. The "Kyrie” from New York composer Glenn McClure’s "St. Francis in the Americas: A Caribbean Mass” brought the greatest audience applause of the afternoon. Beginning with the sounds of steel drums, it quickly moved into a pulsating Latin beat that was completely infectious. (Maybe this whole concert mass for a future program?)

Then came the "Sanctus” from that wonderful African mass "Missa Luba,” which originated in the Congo and was first heard in the United States in the early 1960s. The "Sanctus” was sung with great tenderness, emphasizing the "call and response” of the native traditions caught by the composer-priest, Guido Haazen.

Members of the Chorale have for three consecutive years won the McDonald’s Gospelfest and spirituals have found a special place on Heidrich’s programs. One of the three this year was a premiere performance of a new work by the prolific Jay Althouse and dedicated to the chorale. Entitled "Shout the News” (of the birth of the Christ child), it was the centerpiece of the second half of the concert. It seemed a modest work of its type, having come just minutes after a wonderfully energetic performance of a gospel standard, "Jesus, Oh, What a Wonderful Child.”

With so much music performed, I have mentioned those pieces that stand out on reflection. The reader may have noted that I have not yet said anything about the chorus itself. Well, it is all good. Each chorister was totally responsive to the energetic Heidrich’s bidding. The singing was always a pleasure to hear, the singers blended perfectly, the pianissimos and fortissimos were always controlled, and attacks were synchronous. Joseph Jacovino, Jr. and the Chorale’s instrumental accompanists could hardly be improved upon. All in all, it was a concert for Heidrich and the Chorale to be proud of.

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