A “Christmas Gift” for the community from the Pasadena Master Chorale

First Congregational Church, Pasadena

On a chilly and wet Sunday evening, the Pasadena Master Chorale delivered yet another warm and satisfying performance of Christmas music to an appreciative audience. There couldn’t be a better venue than the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church in Pasadena for holiday choral music. Its towering Gothic cathedral style with wood beams, full horseshoe balcony, and stained glass windows set the mood for the listener within an all-consuming space. Most importantly, the church offers excellent acoustics.

Arranger and conductor Jeffrey Bernstein is known for his slow tempi, which lend themselves to a more thoughtful take on the music. While the spiritual intent was more fully realized in the second half of the program, the opening and mellifluous “The Road Home” by Stephen Paulus set the tone, beautifully expressed in Chelsea Compton’s lilting soprano. Also featured were tenor Brad Worsley, baritone Chris Tickner and bass Jeffrey Parking in “Three Choruses from Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti.

A brief performance by the PMC Student Singers was a refreshing interlude and an encouraging sign of musicianship in our youth, especially when we hear so often of musical education being discounted in our schools. Their “Christmas – in about 3 minutes” medley, by Mark Weston, was a delight! It spoke to the importance of supporting groups such as PMC, which models a professional-level chorale. We all play a role in the future success of this art form.

The “Community Sing of Traditional Carols” midway through the evening took advantage of the exceptional acoustics and built on a feeling of attending a meaningful performance; it sounded rich and glorious. The sing-along also subtly shifted the tone of the evening to a more spiritual experience, after which baritone Darren Pollock favored the audience with “Silent Night” in a special arrangement by Jeffrey Bernstein.

PMC-XMAS-2015_webTwo pieces in the second half of the program particularly stood out for expressing the full power of the chorale: “Be Thou My Vision,” arranged by Bernstein, and “Ubi Caritas” by Maurice Durufle. They were exceptional for their joyousness and lovely emotional impact. Perhaps the single most moving piece was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Noam D. Elkies, a performance of great nuance that was deeply expressive. It also demonstrated Bernstein’s command of the chorale, the disarming lightness of his touch, and how well he delivered on the powerful emotion of the compositions.

The one disappointing aspect of the performance was the sound system. Readings of “Words” from inspirational writers were inserted between musical selections, but patrons seated in the balcony could not hear them, beyond a few words from each. It became clear over the course of the evening that the problem was in the audio system, but this took away from what was clearly meant to provide a strong emotional tie-in to the music. So rather than contribute to the program, the readings distracted. Too bad. I can only add that this in no way impacted the chorale, as their voices carried beautifully, without exception.

The concert closed with a soaring yet intimate “O Nata Lux” by Morten Lauridsen, reinforcing the spiritual theme of the event, and the final piece repeated the opening with an abbreviated “The Road Home.” The evening felt like the “Christmas Gift” of the title: warm, inviting us to come in from the cold and wet streets, evoking memories of more intimate Christmas experiences. Pasadena is fortunate to have this chorale in its embrace.

Next up for the Pasadena Master Chorale is a beloved masterpiece, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, performed in concert with the Los Angeles Daiku and the Los Angeles Daiku Orchestra on Sunday, January 10 at the Aratani Theatre in downtown LA. Also on the program will be the Fukushima Requiem, composed by PMC’s Artistic and Executive Director, Jeffrey Bernstein. For more information, click here or go to the PMC website at www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

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