Pealing Bells and Pure Gold

By Adam Judd
Mark Mangini skillfully guided the Choral Society of the Hamptons through the rough waters of Cecilia McDowall’s “Ave maris stella” at the society’s winter concert on Dec. 8. Durell Godfrey

    While it could legitimately have been titled “Ghosts of English Christmases Past,” the concert given by the Choral Society of the Hamptons and the South Fork Chamber Orchestra at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church on Dec. 8 was a heartfelt gift to those present, offering hope that in the future, all people may live in a peaceful world.

    The program first featured “Ave Maris Stella” by Cecilia McDowall. Its celebration of Mary as “Star of the Sea” and its inclusion of Psalm 107 (“They that go down to the sea in ships . . .”) make this piece an apt choice for an ensemble performing at the edge of the Atlantic.

    After beautifully establishing a setting of calm seas and Marian praise, the chorus gave way to the soprano soloist Jennifer Hoffman for the first of many beautiful solos. In the central portion of the piece, the strings of the chamber orchestra impersonated rough winds and waves through aggressively syncopated, overlapping rhythmic figures that might have capsized a lesser ensemble; fortunately, its only audible damage was to wash overboard the opening consonants of the subsequent choral entrance (“Qui descendunt in mare”). The chorus quickly recovered and went on to deliver a powerful and sensitive interpretation of the piece, guided by the clear gestures of Mark Mangini, its conductor.

    The principal cellist Rebecca Perea’s expressive solo at the start of “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” plaintively set the mood for a fond reminiscence of the English folk carol tradition, as interpreted by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The musical texture gradually thickened as the remainder of the orchestra made its presence known, followed before long by the gifted baritone soloist Dominic Inferrera. The first appearance of the chorus was as a part of the orchestration: humming, oohing, and otherwise providing shimmering harmonic support to the baritone melody. As the piece unfolded, the chorus took the central role, later to be rejoined by Mr. Inferrera in a more equal partnership. Of particular note in this piece was the wide dynamic range the chorus showed itself capable of achieving — especially remarkable given how few rehearsals with orchestra the singers are able to enjoy.

    A filmmaker wishing to bring to life the Nativity scene where angels fill the skies, gloriously singing to the shepherds, would be well advised to the following course of action: a) listen to “In Terra Pax” by Gerald Finzi; b) give up, because he has already done the job better through music than any computer-generated imagery or other visual effects could ever manage.

    This piece does an incredible job of bringing the scene to life through a unique combination of texts and textures. In Sunday’s concert, Mr. Inferrera distinctly voiced the 1913 poetry of Robert Bridges at the beginning of the piece, where the solitary speaker of the poem, walking on a hilltop, allows the pealing of bells from the villages below to send him into a reverie about the first Christmas, “when shepherds . . . heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.”

    From there, the chorus made an excellent case for the angels as it embraced Finzi’s setting of the account from the Gospel of Luke. Ms. Hoffman reappeared in a soprano solo as head angel, and revealed her outstanding ability to taper a phrase-ending (“lying in a manger”). Pure gold! Or at least frankincense!

    But the most thrilling interaction between Finzi’s writing and the performance of the chorus and orchestra came during the oft-quoted text “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, peace, goodwill to men,” where all the performers energetically imitated a cascade of pealing bells. This passage not only provided a musical and dramatic climax, but also wove together imagery from the Bridges poem with Finzi’s experience as a bell-ringer in a village church, and the legend that all the bells on Earth began to ring at the birth of Christ.

    The mood shifted once more as Mr. Inferrera then reclaimed his role as a soliloquist on a hill, bringing the universal experience of Christmas expressed by the chorus back to an individual level. His tone and phrasing at the end of his portion (“. . . in the aspect of th’eternal silence”) were exquisite.

    Next, the South Fork Chamber Orchestra strings players deftly undertook the “Capriol Suite” by Peter Warlock, a free treatment of Renaissance dance music. The players served Warlock’s fantasies well, from their lusty bowstrokes in the “Basse-Danse” to the cheeky pizzicato in the “Tordion,” to the lush, wistful tone they achieved in the “Pieds-en-l’aire.” Of particular note was the contribution of the bassist Stephen Shaughnessy in the “Bransles,” where he sprinkled the intermittent quick-moving figures required in Warlock’s score with perfect timing and intonation.

    The final piece of the concert, McDowall’s “Christus Natus Est,” called for the greatest number of performers. The strings of the South Fork Chamber Orchestra, along with the excellent harpist Margery Fitts and the versatile percussionist Lawrence Janotta, were joined by accomplished players on flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn. It was rather amazing to realize how much the presence of woodwinds and brass for this piece reestablished a sense of what a modern orchestra sounds like.

    This medley revives five lesser-known Christmas carols, but it does so with an expert ear to orchestration and vocal arrangement to fit the modern expectation for depth and variety. The result is an ideal closing number for a holiday concert.

    At the first of two performances a five-member children’s chorus joined in for one of the carols (“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”), adding a fresh vocal color to the overall palette; the children later returned for the exuberant finale. The glorious layers of sound emanating from singers of multiple generations, strings, winds, and percussion at the end of McDowall’s superbly crafted medley were enough to win over even the grumpiest Hamptonite to a celebratory mood. Bravo!