Harmonium Choral Society presented its Winter Concert, "Welcome Yule," on Saturday and Sunday, December 13 and 14 at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey. This gothic wonder was built during the period of 1887 through 1907 on the site of the original church, whose active congregation had outgrown it. The stained glass windows all around the nave and the especially beautiful western window behind the glorious pipe organ and the choir area bathed the performers in a glorious banner of light.
During these dire economic times, traditional Holiday songs are comfort food for the soul. This comfort, like being held and rocked by a loving parent, was found in full measure at St. Peter's. Audience members ranging in age from babes-in-arms to grandparent found general admission seats in the solemn sanctuary. There was a palpable joy in the room. And the program held many welcome surprises.
Starting with a processional led by Cherry Grove's own Bob Verbrugge, the choristers arrayed themselves around the sanctuary. The acoustics in the space are superb and Harmonium, under the direction of Dr. Anne Matlack, has vocal control to match. Beautiful dynamic ranges were displayed throughout the program, but especially beautifully realized in the "Ave Maris Stella" by John Mochnick.
The program in its breadth and scope reflects the general philosophy of Harmonium: you will hear uncommon music beautifully performed and thoughtfully programmed. The music presented was predominantly by modern composers, whose take on the rich tradition of English Choral music is far from common.
Dr. J. Edmund Hughes' "Gaudete" allowed Harmonium members to process in grand style, complete with hand bells, to their places on the risers from their original vocal placement among the listeners. The hand bells' punctuation added a festive yet contemplative feeling to the festivities. Most fun was the gallery echo on this piece. Those of us who had read the program knew it was happening, but the two young women in front of me, perhaps 7 and 10, found it completely unexpected! This was one of my first smiles of the afternoon.
"Welcome Yule," by John D. T. Powell rang vocally in the space and provided delicious contrast to one of the most beautiful pieces of the afternoon, the Ralph Vaughn Williams Mass in G minor. The mass is completely a cappella and the solo quartet of Marilyn Kitchell, Laura Kosmich, Matt Shurts and George Aronson brought the modal flavor of ancient music along with the modern tonality of Vaughn Williams into marvelous color.
Modern settings, in a somewhat different fashion, of Herbert Howells' "Magnificat" and "Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Regale)" featured tenor Joe Keefe. Again, if Dr. Matlack were a chef, her program could not have moved with more savor from piece to piece.
A harbinger of the second act, the final piece of in the first part of the program, was a mid-century setting of the traditional "Sir Christemas," by William Mathias. During the intermission, I watched the light fade from the glorious western window, right to left, as the sun went down, which made for a fitting curtain for the first act.
In this time of glorification of the solo effort, there is little thought given to the effort involved in blending voices, achieving a blend of one group, each voice clearly heard and delightfully performed with no single voice breaking the smooth line of music. Hearing this music in the neo-Gothic splendor of St. Peter's Episcopal, I began to think of the original purpose for which it was written. Glorious modal harmonies provide a sense of eternity yet underline how our efforts together help create this glory. Deep thoughts.
The next part of the program began with a set by the Harmonium Chamber Singers and "Nowell, Dieu vous garde!" a medieval carol featuring Meg McGrath, Ken Short, Chris Jacoby and Julia Reingold. Continuing in truly ancient style, to underscore the provenance of the pieces sung earlier in the first part of the program, "Pastime with Good Company" highlighted the vocal talents of Keira Casper, Beth Shirley, Ted Roper, and John Lamb, on percussion, playing what appeared to be a tambour, an ancient type of small drum.
Next, William Walton's "What Cheer?" displaying Walton's sometimes jazz-flavored harmonies set to a 16th century text. Walton wrote quite a bit of church music, according to Matlack's thorough and thoughtful program text, and his accomplishments both in large scale and smaller pieces continue to please.
A triplet of Renaissance pieces, Thomas Weelkes' "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," William Mundy's "O Lord the Maker of All Things" and William Byrd's "This Day Christ Was Born," continued our trip back in time, and brought the Chamber Singers' section to a brilliant finish.
The Choral Society reassembled for the final portion of the program, which began with Johann Michael Bach's "Sei, leiber Tag, willkommen," welcoming in the New Year. Well crafted and harmonious, it sounded particularly wintry auf Deutsch.
"Jul, Jul," by Gustav Lazarus Nordqvist, is not a song I had ever heard before, but its lilting lyric evoked a sense memory-somehow the song seemed familiar. An active composer, Nordqvist wrote many songs in the early 20th century and this carol is one of his most famous in the Nordic countries. Although it is sung in Swedish, you still have a sense that you can almost translate the words, and peacefulness akin to a lullaby's flows from it.
Next was a sing-a-long portion, very much in the tradition of the service that had gone on in this space earlier in the day. "See, Amid Winter Snow," by John Goss provides a sweet perspective on the birth of Jesus.
The crowning touch to this program brought back the fun-loving spirit of youth with PDQ Bach's suite of mock carols, "Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John," "O Little Town of Hackensack" and "Good King Kong." This suite was so delightfully done that, even when I was driving home, I enjoyed recalling portions of the staging and the absolute joyfulness that Harmonium inspired at a time when it's most needed. In this dark time, the darkest it's been for a while, Harmonium Choral Society brought the light of the Holidays in to banish the shadows, at least for a day. And my Holidays, for one, will be a bit more Happy.