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Concert Review: Bach Choir, brass sextet showcase new holiday works

Monday, December 17, 2001

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic

"And let us all be merry," sang the Bach Choir at one point in their concert at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair last night. And we were. The members also "rejoiced" and were "blessed" in an inspired collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass.

The holiday season usually returns us to our comfort zone, that cozy nook where we can embrace the familiar. Certainly "The Nutcracker," "The Messiah" or "A Christmas Carol" leave little room for anything else.

But conductor Brady Allred and the Bach Choir made "their mirth the fuller" -- and ours -- by commissioning five new holiday works for chorus and brass sextet, something that the National Endowment for the Arts saw fit to reward with a grant. Judging from the enthusiasm of this full house, there is a considerable demand for serious, inspirational holiday music.

Not that there wasn't anything familiar to embrace. The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass contributed expert variations on "In Dulci Jubilo!" and "Ding Dong! Merrily on High," along with performing a virtuoso function throughout the program. In their hands, brass turned to pure gold.

Joseph Wilcox Jenkins enjoyed traversing a medley of cultures with eight carols like "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" and "I Saw Three Ships," but with playfully rhythmic variations.

The other four composers retained the spirit of the season in decidedly offbeat ways.

Mack Wilberg offered "Two Carols" in delicious contrast. The first was a simple and beautiful lullaby, with a celestial soprano solo by Candace Erb, and the other a 15th century-style "Gloria" that, like the star in the East, had pointed harmonies and a glittering underpinning in the tenor line.

Glenn Rudolph drew from the Sept. 11 tragedy in "The Dream Isaiah Saw," constructing an appealing refrain and building a stirring crescendo.

There was an obscure sophistication to Stephen Paulus' "We Sing The Birth." He turned to John Milton, William Dunbar and William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for three songs of exquisite restraint, yet pierced with jarring staccato thrusts by the brass sextet.

Kieren MacMillan found his cheer and good will in 16th-century poet George Wither. A decidedly nonconformist and dramatic rendering, MacMillan infused his "Wither's Carol" with a modern sensibility in its rhythmic acuity.

The quintet of premieres provided the meat of the program, although Joseph Martin's "Three Movements for Advent" provided a haunting "Veni, Veni Emmanuel!" Less successful was Dominick Argento's "Gloria," which blurred in the running passages, and Craig Courtney's "Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas," an amusing guessing game with somewhat heavy-handed references to everything from Gregorian chant to Wagner and Sousa.

It proves that there's nothing more exhilarating than starting a new tradition.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8 p.m. at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. Call 412-394-3353 for information.

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