Master Chorale launches bright and bouncy holiday season

Published: 08:44 p.m., Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Connecticut Master Chorale got its usual head start on the holidays Sunday.

Its Holiday Prelude Concert at St. Mary Church in Bethel was an eclectic mix, but full of the kind of music it does best.

Music director Tina Johns Heidrich likes to program pieces with bright colors and rhythmic bounce. Her well-trained chorale members aren't afraid of shifting accents and challenging rhythms. Their metrical sureness and crisp diction get them across.

A brass and percussion ensemble added to the festive air, starting with the opening "Hodie" by Mark Hayes, with lively dancing rhythms that captured the joy of the Christmas story.

A modern arrangement of the old Catalonian carol "Fum, Fum, Fum" swung to a klezmer beat. Claudia Mickelson stepped out of the alto section to do excellent work on the clarinet.

English composer John Rutter's work is a staple of the chorale -- and of choirs throughout the English-speaking world. His "Ave Maria" is set to a gentle, rocking rhythm.

The chorale's tone was light and natural and its phrasing always musical.

"Christmas Classic Celebration" was an arrangement of mostly familiar carols interwoven with familiar choruses from Handel's "Messiah."

An a cappella "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" was especially pleasing. The chorale's higher voices are sweet and blended and anchored by a solid bass sound, strengths that served them well in this piece and throughout the concert.

The tenor and bass sections got a chance to shine in Lowry and Green's "Mary, Did You Know?" and gave a strong, affecting account.

Tina Johns Heidrich and her singers like music that sets traditional texts in unexpected ways. Bob Chilcott's "Where Riches is Everlastingly" is a 16th-century text set to a bouncy, shifting beat accented by percussion. The chorale sang it with gusto.

K. Lee Scott's Christmas cantata "The Incarnation" gave the chorale some sustained soft singing to do, framed by big brass-accompanied statements that let them sing out strongly.

One of the group's signature sounds for the past several years has been steel drums. Its regular steel drummer, Murray Mast, joined the singers in the spiritual "Here's a Pretty Baby," with alto Nancy Northrop offering a powerful solo. "Calypso Carol," naturally flavored with steel drums, told the Christmas tale in gentle Caribbean rhythms.

Lest Thanksgiving get short shrift with so much Christmas spirit in the air, the chorale sang a lushly harmonized, wistful arrangement of "Over the River and Through the Woods."

"African Lullaby" wove an African chant with an African-American spiritual in a hauntingly effective arrangement for sopranos and altos.

Looking ahead to New Year's Eve was "Auld Lang Syne," sung not to the tune we know but to the one Burns intended. It was a nice change, simple and effective, with a flute line played sweetly by soprano May Steinberg.

Claudia Mickelson brought her clarinet back out for the Jewish tune "S'Vivon," and the rousing gospel number "Down in Bethlehem," kicked into high gear by Joseph Jacovino's piano, sent us out feeling the holiday season was started in fine fashion.