It’s the most wonderful time of the year, which means choral organizations dust off sacred, early music oratorios, cantatas and masses, and more Handel Messiahs than a conductor can shake a baton at. The Choral Art Society of New Jersey put a French Romantic twist on the Baroque holiday tradition with Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Oratorio de Noël” and other Christmas and Hanukkah songs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Westfield, Dec. 18.
The nonprofit community chorus, founded in 1962, has more than 40 voices with a wide range of musical abilities. There are no formal auditions, which gives its avocational singers of diverse backgrounds the opportunity to study and perform choral classics and masterworks across all centuries and repertory.
The concert was its first holiday-themed celebration in more than a decade, as noted by music director Martin Sędek, who has been in the role since 2012. The Polish-American conductor told the full house he was excited for “a good old-fashioned holiday concert.”
Sędek chose a rarely performed Saint-Saëns centerpiece, which presented some stylistic and technical challenges in the modest setting of a community chorus.
The French composer’s 1858 “Christmas Oratorio” features beautiful, intricate choral-orchestral compositions set to text from the Latin Vulgate Bible, and a handful of compelling vocal solos. Its 10 movements are structurally similar to the early Baroque oratorios and scored for five soloists, mixed chorus, organ, harp and strings.
The narrative tells the traditional Christmas story and reflects on the significance of Jesus Christ’s birth, but there is no true arc other than lyrical movements progressing from vocal solos to quintets. The build-up of its 40-odd minutes meanders, and moments of dramatic exuberance in the later movements are as elusive as a comet. The overall tone is somber, subdued and contemplative when stacked up against the grandiose, joyous go-to Christmastime chestnuts of Handel and Bach.
Sędek tailored the piece to the small venue and chorus in a couple of ways. The original Latin text was sung in an English translation. Piano subbed the organ, played reliably by longtime accompanist Mary Beth McFall, now in her 25th season. The absence of a harp soloist left the heavy lifting to a skillful five-piece string ensemble and a dexterous flute. Two additional soloists — mezzo-soprano Jillana Kucey and soprano Linda Smargiassi — padded vocal texture and added weight to the quintets and the understated “Alleluia” of the ninth movement.
Despite the many challenges, the chorus was articulate, well-prepared and melodious with harmonious phrasing and a warm tone.
As a choral musician himself, Sędek sang along devotedly while conducting. He took a gamble presenting a masterwork with so many obstacles, but his interpretation played it safe, consistent with the French Romantic tradition of little experimentation.
The understated tone was set at the “Prélude” with piano and strings creating a delicate pastorale. Drama was kept to a minimum and there was little saccharine or embroidery. Sędek’s slow tempos and pauses between each movement sometimes exaggerated the work’s already leisurely momentum. It was only during the stunning sixth movement that he whipped up the tempo into a fully dramatic mood, and the singers responded with passion and power.
Strong soloists were led by mezzo-soprano Hilary Baboukis, who added rich color and expressive phrasing in the third movement “Air” with piano and strings. Tenor Benjamin Berman nailed all the notes of his fourth movement solo with clean, delicate tonalities.
The fifth movement “Benedictus” paired soprano Veronica Shea and baritone Melvin Rodriguez in a charming, melodic duet. Rodriguez’s agile, flexible voice of graceful color was well-matched to Shea’s bright, fully lyric soprano.
The remainder of the festive program was a medley of secular and traditional holiday music that highlighted the camaraderie of the chorus and its unifying, community spirit.
Two works acknowledged Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that began at sundown, with “One Light” in Evan Ramos’s melancholic setting and a solemn “Rock of Ages” choral expansion arranged by Italian composer Benedetto Marcello.
Nostalgic Christmas songs — including “Deck the Halls” (arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and arranged by Mark Hayes) and Donald Fraser’s “This Christmastide” — showed off the warmth of the voices.
The chorus poked fun at the Christmas traditions with humorous, spirited parody pieces by Peter Schickele: “Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John” and “O Little Town of Hackensack,” a spoof on the classic seasonal song that transposed Bethlehem to a New Jersey setting.
Sędek showcased his multifaceted skills as a choral and orchestral composer with two of his own pieces commissioned a decade ago by the Baldwin Festival Chorus of NYC. “I Sing of a Maiden (That Matchless Is),” set to a late Middle Ages English text, featured an introspective, darkly romantic tonality marked by a tenderhearted violin solo. The richly layered “A Spotless Rose,” set to a 16th century German text, drove in the holiday spirit with its themes of hope, light and renewal.
For more about the Choral Art Society of New Jersey, visit casofnj.org.
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