Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s “Classical Christmas”
Scottish Rite Cathedral
Many singing voices were heard celebrating the Nativity last Saturday in the rectangular splendor of the Scottish Rite Cathedral’s Ballroom. Now in its ninth year presenting Christmas music without any of the crass commercialism so associated with the holiday season, “Classical Christmas,” featuring Raymond Leppard, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s conductor laureate, continues to reveal Leppard’s “voice” as dominant. It was his brainchild. It is he who puts together the programs, engages the guest soloists and groups, prepares a modest-sized ISO and continues — at age 79 — to bring these forces into an articulately beautiful (or beautifully articulate) whole, at no time better than this.
Under director Jan Harrington, who retires after this season, Apollo’s Voice, the IU singing group formed in 1998 for this annual Indy event, once again appeared — a 24-voice chorus. This year they were joined by four vocalists from the Young Opera Studio of the Chicago Opera Theater: soprano Janai Brugger, mezzo Kate Mangiameli, tenor Peter Sovitzky and baritone Jonathan Beyer. These forces opened with Part 1 of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 — a most auspicious first half.
From the festive opening chorus, “Rejoice, exult!” through three recitatives, two arias and three chorales, Leppard had his voices and his players in lockstep. While chorus and orchestra distinguished themselves throughout, some variance in singing caliber appeared among the four vocalists: For her recitative, “Now shall my beloved Bridegroom” and ensuing aria, “Prepare thyself, Zion,” Mangiameli’s vibrato splashed into adjacent pitches, making her pitch center difficult to hear — its width possibly better suited for a florid grand-opera role. By contrast, Sovitzky’s tenor in the recitative, “And she brought forth,” and Beyer’s baritone in the aria, “Mighty Lord and King so glorious,” were both much better contained.
Leppard began the program’s second half with O magnum mysterium (1952), one of four Christmas motets by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a short, soft, austere work for a cappella chorus. A quick change of pace then brought us Brahms’ Cradle Song of the Virgin, Op. 91 No. 2, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. With a nicely rendered viola/ bassoon opening, Mangiameli’s well-projected delivery remained excessively wobbly.
Jumping forward again, Leppard conducted The Sussex Mummer’s Carol for horn and orchestra by Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961, I always spell out his middle name). Here ISO principal hornist Robert Danforth supplied his beautiful “voice” to the proceedings.
Regrettably, the evening’s best singer was given only one piece: Brugger’s soprano voice soared in Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” from Vespere solennes de confessore, K. 339, Apollo’s Voice providing excellent support. Still, I feel this young vocalist has yet to blossom fully; Brugger nonetheless gave us a good indication of where she’s headed.
Dipping back in time, Leppard then offered a piece by the great Renaissance/early-Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Currite populi: In Praise of St. Nicolas for tenor and orchestra. Sovitzky’s voice seemed especially suited for this era, this style.
Leppard couldn’t have picked a better close to these proceedings than Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Lovely and beautifully wrought throughout, the fantasia contains no familiar carols — all to the good. Beyer, Apollo’s Voice and Leppard’s “voice” joined at the verses’ conclusion to proclaim, “We wish you a Happy New Year.”