by Grant Yosenick, Guest Contributor
It’s the most wonderful time of the year once again, and there’s no better way to ring in the holiday season than to take in some good old-fashioned Christmas caroling. In the bustling suburbs of Beverly Hills, one can do just that – with an exciting twist, of course! On Saturday, December 6th, the Hollywood Master Chorale presented their annual Christmas program at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. Under the direction of Dr. Lauren Buckley Schaer, the HMC is currently celebrating its twentieth season performing in the greater Los Angeles area. This evening’s program includes a wide variety of both sacred and popular holiday music, featuring the Messe de minuit pour Noel of French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
From the start, the technical proficiency and versatility of the ensemble are evident in their performance. The concert opens with the oddly jazzy piece “What Cheer?” arranged by William Walton. Under Schaer’s baton, the ensemble maintains a high caliber of energy throughout the piece while holding together through its tight harmonic language. Immediately following this piece was an arrangement of the sacred carol staple “Veni, veni Emmanuel” by the prolific Hungarian composer and music pedagogue Zoltán Kodály. In stark contrast to the previous piece, the ensemble firmly established a more reserved, solemn tone which was highlighted by Schaer’s conducting. With these two pieces, the ensemble demonstrated a command of diverse repertoire which continues throughout the concert.
Following the first two pieces was the pivotal centerpiece of the program – Charpentier’s Messe de minuit pour Noel, a complete setting of the mass ordinary, using melodies from eleven then-popular Christmas carols as the basis for the mass. This evening’s performance of the work featured Dr. Haesung Park on a generously donated and meticulously tuned harpsichord, as well as six vocal soloists from within the ensemble – Danielle DiDonato, Christina Farrell, Eve Cockrill, Sheen Sanchez, Saunder Choi, and Tim Campbell.
From start to finish of the Messe, the ensemble took great care in their performance. While singing through sections of tight polyphony and fugue scattered throughout the piece, the singers, and particularly the vocal soloists, remained calm and collected, while maintaining a light mechanism of vocal production. Schaer’s thorough knowledge of the score was also evident as she moved effortlessly, with little to no disconnect between the various movements of the piece as a whole (which constitutes twenty minutes or so of essentially though-composed music). Overall, HMC’s performance of this technically challenging piece was strikingly convincing and demonstrates a high level of technical proficiency.
Following a brief intermission, the ensemble delivered a stream of diverse holiday favorites which ranged greatly in terms of musical style and character. From the broad and reverent “Sim Shalom” (arr. Max Janowski), to the stately and regal “Rejoice and Be Merry” (arr. John Rutter), to two different versions of the rich and sentimental “Auld Lang Syne” (arr. Lee Kesselman and Mark Sirett respectively), the ensemble explored a wide palette of musical and emotional content which was both satisfying and stunning. The sound of the ensemble was further enhanced by the lush and resonant organ of the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church played by Dr. Park, as well as a vibrant and lively brass quintet (courtesy of a donation by the local Ladies of the Sacred Page book club).
While the performance itself overall was excellent in its own right, the evening concert experience was further enhanced by consistent audience engagement from the performers. Between various pieces, Schaer frequently stopped to address the audience directly, whether to provide details about the pieces being performed or to provide information about supporting the group. And of course, no Christmas concert would be complete without the obligatory sing-along to raise audience spirits. While this may not seem like much, such commitment to involving the audience makes all the difference.
By providing concertgoers with a wide variety of intricate music, the Hollywood Master Chorale delivered a superb concert experience and continued to prove its reputation as a remarkable performance ensemble. As they move into their twentieth season, this writer sincerely hopes that the ensemble will continue for at least twenty more years on top of that!