For some, Black Friday is the marker for the holiday season. For others, it’s the purchase of a Christmas tree. For many, to judge by the size and enthusiastic response of the audiences for last weekend’s Sierra Master Chorale Holiday Concerts, it’s the celebration of the musical traditions of the holiday.
Sierra Master Chorale, entering its fifth season, delighted full houses with a program that acknowledged tradition yet offered new perspectives. SMC conductor Ken Hardin likes to challenge the 70-voice chorus and his audience with a variety of styles, periods and sentiments. He programmed a capella numbers, which put the unaccompanied chorus through its paces. He coaxed a not-unwilling audience to a lusty sing-along of old gems celebrating the hearth and home aspects of the holiday (“Silver Bells,” “White Christmas”) as well as giving the nod to deep-rooted tradition (“Silent Night”).
An infectiously clever arrangement of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” each day in a different musical style from sixth century Gregorian chant and Mozart to Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Sousa, evoked pleasurable laughter. The impressive 35-piece orchestra was clearly enjoying itself, one minute embodying Vivaldi and next invoking Wagner’s “Valkyrie” to gasps of amusement.
Hardin’s own tradition is to include a large-scale work in each program. This year’s offering was the exhilarating “Gloria” of French composer Francis Poulenc, reportedly the second most frequently performed piece of French music. The most performed? You guessed it: Ravel’s “Bolero.” The work is a fascinating blend of simple purity and rich sensuality, impish joy and deep religious feeling. The six short movements contrast the different sides of Poulenc’s musical character (a critic once said he combined “monk and street urchin”) while exuberantly celebrating God’s glory.
Although “modern” in date (1961), the work is accessible and tuneful. The chorus sensitively delivered its many moods, handling the complex shifting rhythms with precision and agility, Hardin in masterful control of the six-horse rig (there are a lot of things going on here in the chorus and orchestra). Soprano soloist Lyra Dominguez, classically trained but more familiar from her performances with Sierra Stages and Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra (CATS), touched the emotional core of the work with rich warmth and soaring pleading and, in the final movement, joyous acceptance, accompanied by the chorus’ luscious Ravel-like harmonies. Her final gentle “Amen” (“So be it”) perfectly expressed Poulenc’s affirmation of his faith.
The orchestra had its solo moment with a thrilling show-piece arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” (with allusions to many other carols) and underpinned a full-blooded choral setting of “O Holy Night.”
There is nothing like the sound of 10 brass instruments to conjure up the spirit of angels — and eggnog.
Charles Atthill lives in Alta Sierra. For him the first stirrings of the Holiday come when he hears Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” or any movement from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.