Christmas old and new with Angeles Chorale

This year’s Christmas concert from Angeles Chorale was a real holiday treat, especially since I haven’t heard them myself in quite a few years.  This historic and impressively well-organized choral organization is now led by artistic director John Sutton, and it’s clear that the group is thriving, with a well-crafted program and a crowd that enthusiastically filled the ample spaces at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church on Saturday, December 12.

Notable differences with this organization were almost immediate, beginning with the fact that they started almost exactly on time. Starting brief announcements at 7:28, people scrambled to find seats so the choir could file in at 7:30.  You don’t see that every day.

The first half of the concert was made up of Part One of Handel’s Messiah, plus the “Hallelujah Chorus”, of course, which is essential.  Although this beloved work has become a de rigueur part of the holiday season, it’s actually not easy, and this well-prepared group did Handel’s oratorio justice, with strong excited singing and good ensemble.

The quartet of excellent local soloists all sang well, in spite of the fact that (as we learned later) more than one of them was fighting the traditional maladies of the season.  Most would never have known it, however, as all four performed admirably.

Tim Gonzales began with the tenor treasure, “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”, the showpiece that some feel is the heart of the work.  His sweet, bright voice shone in the charming ornamentation and a cheerful presentation that was emotionally as well as musically engaging.  The crowd ate it up, causing a burst of applause as well as a pause and a deep breath from the conductor, who smiled and turned to the nearby speaker’s mic with the jovial plea: “Thank you for showing our wonderful soloist your appreciation, but if you applaud after all 23 of these pieces, we’ll [still] be here tomorrow…” It was a nice way to offer the audience a welcome guideline, and with a smattering of bemused giggles, we all settled in to enjoy the rest.

The next solo was from baritone Benjamin Lowe, whose stentorian sound carried easily through each piece.  Ben’s recitative was commanding yet conversational, as if he sings scripture every day of his life.  (Who knows?  Perhaps he does.)  An increasingly sought-after soloist in the area, we’re sure to be watching his career grow quickly over the next few years.

Mezzo Niké St. Clair looked spectacular in a Carnegie-worth vermillion gown with matching fringed shawl.  (Yeah, some gowns need their own review.)  Her rich, operatic voice is warm and supple, a shade darker than I had remembered, but it suits, with the same exquisite diction and dramatic flair she’s become known for.

Soprano Anna Schubert stole the show, with one of the finest performances of “Rejoice greatly” I’ve ever heard.  Her voice is smooth as silk, yet it sparkles like morning on a breezy lake.  That brightness caused a few notes to go just a tiny bit sharp, but with an effortless lilt and ferocity when needed, this is a voice to listen for.

The choir seemed just the right size for this room, and several steps above the level of choral skill since the last time I heard them.  Sure and well-rehearsed, there were very few moments when they seemed out of sync.  There was one technique used that is rarely heard outside the rehearsal room:  during the longer runs in “And he shall purify” and “For unto us a child is born”, at least some of the singers were using consonant-articulated syllables, e.g. “and he shall purifa-na-na-na-na-na…”  The inserted consonants were softened a bit, so it was difficult to tell exactly what they were using.  If it weren’t so unusual, it might have worked.  But in such a familiar work, it was a little unnerving.

John Sutton at the podium — photo courtesy of Angeles Chorale.

Kudos to members of the “pick-up” orchestra (i.e. gathered for this event), a fine chamber orchestra contracted largely through local university connections.  The group played crisply but without coldness.  Joined by harpsichordist James Lent and with Julian Revie at the organ for the Messiah, it was an excellent performance of a too-often hackneyed classic.  Sutton’s conducting is sure, committed and joyful, and although a few of the tempi were a touch on the slower side, it worked, with no perceivable lag, but rather a nice sense of shared vision.

After what the program amusingly called a 12-minute intermission, the second half started with the choir dispersed around the main sanctuary floor, singing a fairly diverse mix of seasonal choral selections, mainly from the 20th century.  With good arrangements of favorite carols interspersed and directed so that the audience could sing along with three of the songs, the effect was homey and communal, expanding the feeling of connectedness that the audience already seemed to share.

Two pieces gave the chorale’s Conducting Associate, Yasumichi Ichikawa, a chance to lead the choir, exhibiting his potential and illustrating the ongoing efforts of the organization in nurturing young talent.  Sutton spoke from the podium about their Young Artist Program and his passion for finding and creating opportunities for young and emerging musicians, and it was good to not only hear about the arts org’s community focus, but to see it in action.

Angeles Chorale Christmas 2015_7
Photo by Tim Aarons

As beautiful as all of the mixed section’s songs were (and Sutton chose this program well), two pieces stood out for the novelty and ingenuity:

“Sir Christèmas”, from William Matthias’ Ave Rex, used changing meters and an exclamatory, modern organ part to build a concise, kinetic showpiece that looked and sounded great fun to sing.

The more recent “Gloria” for women’s chorus, from Kazuaki Ogikubo’s Missa No. 2, changes texture rather dramatically at several points, with angular statements dissolving into peaceful waves, then plunging into exploratory joy, and even falling back into a ghostly section that left me wanting for program notes, curious about the creator’s point of invention.  I look forward to hearing both of these intriguing working again.

Ending the concert with Fred Bock’s “Peace, Peace / Silent Night” (which we were told has now sold more than a million copies!), the audience joined the choir to sing the familiar tune, light candles and raise those lights in hope of peace around the world.  With encores of “Sing Noel” and an emotional arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with a grand finale ending, the group wrapped up a beautiful holiday evening with a simple reception and loads of holiday cheer.

Photo by Brian Elerding

A couple of notes about the production team:  this was a well-run event, with tricky operations like the intermission’s removal of the harpsichord and re-setting of the stage.  These were handled in full view, and apparently without a hitch.  An added bonus for the audience’s experience was the striking lighting design by Nathan Heflin, a student at Citrus College who is learning stage tech and design there, and looks forward to a career in the same.  Another example of how this organization is nurturing young talent and bringing high-gloss shine to their events.

Angeles Chorale has become a rare bird:  a selective community-based choral ensemble with polish.  This is a volunteer group LA can be quite proud of, and we look forward to hearing more.

Photo courtesy of Angeles Chorale

Next up

Desire!  Fate, Fortune, and the Music of Carl Orff‘ brings the monumental Carmina Burana to Pasadena on April 2, 2016.  Read more on their website

Header photo by Brian Elerding

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