Sure on this shining night / Of star made shadows round,With this serene and contemplative utterance of James Agee, so ended a concert that embraced the popular, the 21st century devotional, and the baroque, all of them intersecting with the celebration of winter and the season of Christ's birth.
Kindness must watch for me / This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north. / All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth. / Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night / I weep for wonder wand'ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
The main work of the evening was the Marc-Antoine Charpentier Midnight Mass for Christmas. In a way, this piece represented a similarly broad range of interest to the contemporary 17th century audience assembled to witness the celebration of the Holy Sacrament. Charpentier chose the melodies from ten popular seasonal folk songs to support the sections of the traditional Latin Mass. Most of these carols are not well-known to us, other than the first, "Joseph est bien marié" used for the Kyrie, which may be familiar to many. Nonetheless one might imagine that, in Charpentier's time, the parade of beloved tunes made the Mass a joy to hear. The Gloria's Laudamus te grows out of "Les Bourgeois de Chastre" while the the soprano soloists' Quoniam tu Solus Sanctus is based on "Ou s'en vont ces guay bergers" and so on, to the "A Minuit fut fait un Resveil," making the Agnus Dei a referential as well as a lively, but still reverent, closer. Catherine Cessac, in her authoritative work on Charpentier and his music, writes that the Messe de Minuit presents "a perfect synthesis between the secular and the liturgical, between popular and learned writing."
This concert's presentation of the "Messe de Minuit" was accompanied by David Millard's playing of a beautifully baroque-voiced Roland organ, supplemented by the rich sounding violins of Hyunah Cho and Michelle Gao. The bass and two tenor soloists were drawn from the ranks of the choir - Elliott Dainow, Bryan Gick and Steve Froese, the latter, when required, also undertaking the alto solos. The soprano parts were delivered by guests Sawyer Craig and Bahareh Poureslami. The frequent changes of metre and tempo were well communicated to the whole group by conductor Risa Takahashi who exhibited perfect control throughout.
The choir began the proceedings with a well paced and scaled rendering of Randall Thompsons lushly layered "Alleluia" which was then immediately contrasted with Ralph Morton's spare "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." The Australian's setting plays with the arc of the old plainchant in a way that captures a wonderful sense of longing and quiet anticipation. A winter mood was established in the next piece, Matthew Culloton's arrangement of the Austrian carol "Still, Still, Still" - cold, but very calm. And this calm was effectively disrupted by the Willcocks vibrant arrangement of the initial joyous verses of the English traditional "Tomorrow Shall be My Dancing Day," wherein Tomorrow is the day of Christ's birth. The 'dance' in effect can be said to represent the events of the Saviour's life, while the 'true love' is thought to symbolize for the church for which His life is pre-destined to be the foundation. The possibly 16th century original has eleven verses whose narrative goes as far as the Ascension. This performance provided an opportunity for Risa Takahashi to introduce her Kids Sing Choir who ably assisted the Vivaldi sopranos, the line benefiting from the unaffected joy of children's voices. Kids Sing then presented a set of their own ending with Donald Swann's Hippopotamus Song, taken from the Flanders & Swann "At the the Drop of a Hat" - hard to resist the invitation to wallow in the musical line of "Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud," though none of us was a Hippo!
David Millard took the podium for four Vivaldi Christmas favourites - all arranged or composed by David himself, or long time friend of the choir, Earle Peach. Most noteworthy, in the folk/modern/Christmas gestalt of the concert was "A Child of our Time," David's setting of the words written for a competition to create a carol with a contemporary context. It tells the story of Mary & Joseph, who, unable to find digs on the Euston Road, took up residence (just in time) in a disused guard's van that had been shunted into a siding near the famous railway station's Platform Three. After the birth the porters bring them tea and harried passengers waiting nearby pause to marvel - but then go on their way. This was David Millard's formal farewell after a 14 year association with the 'Vivaldi Chamber Choir' and the choir's president, Joan Fitzpatrick, took a few moments to deliver an appreciative tribute, which was reinforced by audience applause from many of the group's regular subscribers.
A short pause was followed by the Charpentier and the concert closed, first with Jay Althouse's arrangement of Marta Keen's "Homeward Bound" in which Greg Froese took the solo. This song is perhaps best known as a highs chool and college valedictory - but the urge to return home does pervade Christmas, or in the case of Steve Martin and John Candy, Thanksgiving. Then came Alice Parker's rousing spiritual "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal," thus raising the emotional temperature so we could then relax again to Morten Lauridsen's "Sure on this Shining Night," that inspired both the concert title and the selected poster image. In response to enthusiastic applause for the Choirs, Risa, the soloists and the instrumentalists, the Vivaldi Choir served up an encore - an a capella rendering of "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas," which was written by Peter Dent, a member and a conductor of the choir in its earlier days.
Many thanks to Nigel Fitzpatrick who took all the pictures!