Monmouth Civic Chorus seeks to inspire with annual holiday concert

RYAN JAMES BRANDAU

The Monmouth Civic Chorus will toast to peace on earth and goodwill to men with its “Joy to the World” program, Dec. 18 at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank.

The program interweaves George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” selections from Margaret Bonds’ “Ballad of the Brown King” and popular Christmas carols and holiday songs newly arranged by MCC artistic director Ryan James Brandau.

“We have some favorites that are always there,” says Brandau of the program. “But each year we introduce something new and put something aside from the last (concert) and reinvent the setlist a bit, and there are certain hallmark pieces we love coming back to every year.”

One of those hallmarks is “Messiah,” an early music masterwork that narrates the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ with English texts taken from the King James Bible. Handel composed the three-part oratorio in 1741 for modest voice and orchestra, but modern versions trend grandiose with sprawling choruses stacked to the ceiling for its majestic “Hallelujah Chorus.”

As an advocate of historically informed performances — presenting early music masters as they were performed in their time, on period instruments — Brandau stays faithful to Handel’s intentions. “In the movements of ‘Messiah’ that we do as part of this concert, I don’t rope in the trombones or otherwise embroider Handel’s music,” he says. “We absolutely have our ear towards Baroque articulation. We spend a lot of time rehearsing that as a chorus and then with the orchestra as well.”

The MCC dedicated itself to a “HIP” (historically informed performance) Handel performance earlier this year. “Most recently, we explored last spring an oratorio by Handel called ‘Israel in Egypt,’ ” Brandau says, “and we took the opportunity to bring in Baroque specialists from all over the country to make the orchestra for that performance, which we did with Baroque instruments and historically informed performance practice. That was a fascinating new endeavor, to give the singers the experience of performing with that specialist orchestra.”

Members of ensembles such as Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and musicians who sub at the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, New Jersey Symphony and New York Pops are among the MCC’s musical freelancers. “We’ve cultivated our roster over the years so that many of the same people come back year after year,” Brandau says. “We have a great time, and these people know and love these pieces.”

CLAIRE LEYDEN

Soprano soloist Claire Leyden, a frequent MCC collaborator, will showcase Handel’s vocal lyricism. “I was so excited to be able to bring her in to be a part of this holiday program,” Brandau says. “She’s a spectacular performer and really tells a story with her singing, and there is a sense of storytelling with this program. She has a platinum soprano with no apparent limits.”

Other vocal soloists will be pulled from the chorus. All have solo singing experience in musical theater and cabaret or having played lead roles in musicals and operas that the chorus previously staged. “They’re seasoned performers, and I love the opportunity each year to feature them,” Brandau says.

Fellowship and togetherness comes naturally to the 100-voice, nonprofit community chorus, whose core mission is to bring diverse people together in the collective, connective, illuminating spirit of song. Volunteers navigate all levels of membership with some singers double-tasking in back-of-house roles such as administration and board. Most of the group hails from Monmouth and Ocean counties.

“We have among the ranks people from all walks of life doing all kinds of different things,” Brandau says. Some are music teachers, current and retired, and church choir directors. Others are involved in musical theater organizations. There is even a professional bagpiper!

“They’re just a wonderful bunch, all kinds of people engaged in music and they come together for the sake of choral music with MCC. They’re very dedicated.”

The chorus performs works of musical theater, opera and operetta in addition to choral masterworks such as Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” It was founded in 1949 by William Gordon Pagdin and premiered in 1950 at the Carlton Theater in Red Bank (before it became The Basie) with Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Brandau has held the directorship role since the 2012-13 season. The New York-based conductor and arranger is known for his concise interpretations of wide-ranging repertoire. He also is the artistic director of Amor Artis, a New York chamber chorus, and Princeton Pro Musica.

The narrative arc of the concert will span centuries and continents, from the Baroque European masters to modern American icons, wrapped in the joyous holiday spirit.

New to this year’s program are several movements of “The Ballad of the Brown King,” the Christmas cantata by Margaret Bonds set to Langston Hughes’ text. The work was composed during the 1950s when the two shared a close friendship in New York. The story is about the Black King Balthazar, one of the three Magi who travelled to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ. The uplifting, powerful work celebrates a Black protagonist in the familiar Christmas narrative.

“I was drawn to the Bonds work because she collaborated with Hughes and they had an artistic relationship for many years that bore fruit in the form of a lot of vocal pieces and art songs, but this was their most ambitious collaboration — a full cantata,” Brandau says. “The music is really beautiful. She wrote it in the ’50s and it just has that rich colorful harmony of American music of that time. We’ve loved learning something new.”

He discovered the work during the pandemic, when in-person rehearsals and performances were halted and he organized new activities and programs to fill the downtime.

“We met with some voice teachers and vocal health experts to think about taking care of our voices when we couldn’t sing together,” he says. “And we also had discussion groups about topics having to do with choral music. So, you know, we took a deep dive into Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ and we looked at Bach’s ‘B Minor Mass.’

“One of the things we did was we spoke with a man named Vinroy Brown and he shared a talk and discussion about the non-idiomatic music of Black composers. And as part of that exploration, we came to know the music of Margaret Bonds. It was a blessing in disguise to have extra time during the pandemic to take a deep dive into new repertoire. It’s been great to discover new Christmas music.”

Bonds’ arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is featured in Brandau’s Christmas suite, a medley of freshly inked arrangements of familiar carols and holiday favorites for chorus and orchestra.

KENNETH WASSER

Baritone Kenneth Wasser, a member of MCC for over 40 years, will sing the solo in Brandau’s arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” “He has a one in a million voice,” Brandau says. “He sang it many years ago, and he really brought the house down with it, so we’ve left it on the program every year and it’s become a hallmark.”

Longtime MCC member Bob Kelly has written an annual holiday poem since the ’80s and he will share two of them this year.

Additionally, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo portion of Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” will be performed.

“The suite is designed to tell a story,” Brandau says of his choral-orchestral Christmas arrangements. “Not explicitly, so much as to capture some of the moods and themes of the traditional holiday story, so I look for and arrange carols that capture that sense of anticipation and celebration and hope and renewal.”

These inspiring themes are welcome keynotes after a couple of challenging years.

“After some time away in 2020 and 2021, we’ve been especially keen to return to our musical home: the concert,” Brandau says. “During the pandemic, we were not able to gather in person to rehearse in person. And so leaning on the dedication and the enthusiasm of the group, we took our music and our gathering online and created a virtual version of our holiday program in 2020. It was good to unite our efforts behind something.”

The virtual concert was a study in coordination and innovation. To create the performance, rehearsals were done over the computer and each singer sent Brandau individual recordings, which he added to a backing track. Then he shared his feedback, did a couple of more takes and digitally layered all the tracks together. The challenge proved so rewarding that the group created a second virtual concert in June 2021.

Last year’s holiday concert was the first in-person celebration of the MCC community since 2019. “It was a thrill,” Brandau says. “We had an energy unlike any previous December concert. I think everybody was so excited to be back, to be able to make music together. Because ultimately, it is a physical embodied activity, where you can feel your body rumbling from the trombones and the timpani and you can feel your own body resonating with your own voice. And to bring that all together in a hall and have that physical vibration excite an audience of hundreds of people … that’s something you just can’t do on your computer.”

He aims to top that success for MCC’s 75th anniversary milestone celebration in the 2023-24 season. “We’re looking to celebrate the organization and what it has meant to all the people in it, and to Monmouth county over the years,” he says. “We’ll close the season with a retrospective concert that features some of the group’s favorite works and that honors its history.”

To celebrate the anniversary, the organization commissioned a new work, and the honor went to Brandau.

“They decided to commission me, which I’m thrilled about,” he says. “I’ll be creating about a 30-minute piece of music for chorus and orchestra; it’s on the topic of musical community, about music itself, about the power of song and especially the power of being together.

“As a composer and an arranger, it’s so helpful to know the instrument you’re composing for. In this case, the instrument is Monmouth Civic Chorus. We’ve been together for more than a decade; I know those voices intimately and look forward to writing a piece that features them in their best possible light.”

The Monmouth Civic Chorus presents its “Joy to the World” holiday concert at the Count Basie Center in Red Bank, Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. Visit thebasie.org or ticketmaster.com.

For more on the chorus or Brandau, visit monmouthcivicchorus.org or ryanbrandau.com.

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