Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Is there a more beautiful sound than the harmonies of a professional choir singing sacred songs for Christmas?
What if they are accompanied by Paul Sweeny on guitar, Barbara Kauffman on recorders, Peter Browne on the organ, and directed by Bruce Borton? Having just heard the first of two performances of “Lessons & Carols for Christmas, East to West,” as sung by the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton, I think the answer has to be “no.”
If you’ve never been to a Lessons and Carols service at Christmastime, you should add it to your Noel itinerary in the years to come. This originally Anglican festival service celebrated a progression of biblical events, opening with the shame of Adam and Eve, and culminating with the visit of the magi, thankfully not in this concert with the doleful We Three Kings, but with the less well-known, but meditatively beautiful, Heavenly Light by Alesksandr Kopylov, a 19th century composer.
At least nine members of the choir read a lesson and, through thoughtful inflection, brought the selected chapters and verses to life. However, it was the singing and the arrangements of the music that really were the draw here. Since all carols and readings were done in rapid succession, and because it is against protocol, the audience couldn’t applaud, of course, until it was over, but, believe me, I wanted to. In the second or two of silence following more than one carol, I heard a whisper of “amazing” and “wow” from voices in the pews behind me, and the friend who accompanied me said “awesome” more than once. She, as a member of a local bell choir, reminded me what a great responsibility it is, and how much power an artistic director wields over a group of musicians, and she wanted me (who is not a musician of any kind) to appreciate that, so kudos again to Mr. Borton.
My two favorites here were Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming in the most ethereal treatment of it ever, and the lively, percussive Nigerian carol Betelehemu by 20th century composer Babatunde Olatunji. In the former, the humming of at least 40 voices laid a bedrock upon which a solo quartet (Andrea Dietrich, Cristina Dinella, J. Ladd Yost and Craig Johnson) built the lyrics. In the latter, augmented by rain sticks, drums and large gourd rattles, and the choir, for the first and only time, swayed with their song. It was captivating.
A word about the ebullient and charming Gregory Keeler, who has been with the Madrigal Choir for many years. His golden WSKG public radio voice added much fun to the pre-concert announcements and the closing reading of the Wordsworth poem The Minstrels played their Christmas tune, but the man can sing, too. He provided a tenor solo for The Holly and the Ivy, along with the sweet sopranos of Melissa Collins, Alison Dura and Missy Goetz, the youthful tenor of Jason Auman and the contrasting bass of Rick Shumaker.
Even the audience at Binghamton’s Church of the Holy Trinity was able to make its own joyful noise, joining in high-decibel renditions of O Come, All Ye Faithful; O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing — one sure way to celebrate the advent of Advent.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of Fr. George Sander, OFM Conv., Pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity and SS Cyril and Methodius Church, and, as the program said, “a lover of classical and liturgical music.”