Unfamiliar but Wonderful Choral Music

By Jonathan Howe
Some of the featured artists at this year’s Choral Society of the Hamptons winter concert included, clockwise from left, Vilian Ivantchev on guitar, Margery Fitts on harp, and Christine Cadarette on piano and portative organ. Durell Godfrey

The Choral Society of the Hamptons, which often performs standard classical repertoire, was conducted on Sunday by Mark Mangini, its music director, in “Dances, Carols, and Lullabies,” a program with a varied, non-traditional mix of music having to do with Christmas and Hanukkah. I had been its rehearsal pianist for one season about ten years ago, when the group was working on Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” and was glad I was there on Sunday to hear it.

The program lasted just over one hour. Mr. Mangini did a wonderful job of putting together a wide range of music in different styles representing different cultures, languages, and ethnicities. Most of the pieces were short — three to five minutes — and I can personally attest to the effectiveness of programming shorter pieces, and shorter programs in general. Even a dedicated classical music lover can have difficulty sitting through a lengthy program of unfamiliar music. And this concert was anything but difficult.

The first piece, “Veni, veni Emmanuel,” better known as “O come, o come Emmanuel,” is listed in the program as Gregorian chant. This particular arrangement was done by Zoltan Kodaly, the 20th century Hungarian composer who is now most famous for his creation of an elementary musical teaching method. His arrangement contains key changes and other adventurous harmonies, which are not normally associated with Gregorian chant, but are quite effective. 

The next two pieces, “Kol haneshamah” by Bonia Shur, and “Al HaNissim” by Dov Frimer, recognized Hanukkah. According to the program notes, Frimer is a practicing lawyer who composes music in his spare time! Many listeners might assume that the latter melody is very old, but it was actually composed in 1975. (Well, that is old for some listeners.) These two pieces featured Christine Cadarette, the society’s rehearsal pianist, on piano and Kenneth Borrmann on clarinet. Their performance was excellent.

The next piece, “In dulci jubilo,” is a German carol arranged by Robert Lucas Pearsall. It featured several members of the Choral Society as soloists, who did a wonderful job, with some sounding as good as professionals.

Next came “Carols and Lullabies,” arranged by Conrad Susa. These carols were written and sung in Spanish, though two were in Catalan. Again, several society soloists were featured, and it was truly a pleasure to listen to them all. This was by far the longest piece on the program. The program notes, which contained the original text as well as English translations, really helped guide me through the music, and definitely made the piece more enjoyable.

Indeed, even pieces that are sung in English are aided by program notes. This was certainly the case for “What Is This Lovely Fragrance,” a French carol arranged by Healey Willan.

The next piece on the program was “Silent Night,” arranged by Malcolm Sargent. This is where the Pierson High School chorus joined the performance. While listeners may be familiar with the words of “Silent Night,” Sargent’s arrangement is quite unusual. Similar to Kodaly’s arrangement of “O come, o come Emmanuel,” there are interesting harmonies and unexpected turns of melody. I found the arrangement quite beautiful. The Pierson students only sang at the 3 p.m. performance, which I attended, adding a touching intensity.

The next piece, an interlude for harp from “A Ceremony of Carols” by Benjamin Britten, was a lovely diversion from the rest of the program. The guest performer, Margery Fitts, really made this piece shine.

Next came “A Christmas Garland,” also arranged by Conrad Susa, a sort of mash-up of familiar Christmas songs, although this text was in English. The audience was invited to sing along when the text in the program was in bold type. The audience participated as directed, and it was well received. 

Finally, the program concluded with three verses of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” by Felix Mendelssohn. Since the concert was at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, the audience was invited to sing along by referring to the hymnals for the words. Walter Klauss, on the organ, led the spirited singing.

In addition to Margery Fitts, the Choral Society was joined in this concert by Peter James Saleh, a percussionist, and Vilian Ivantchev, a guitarist. These instrumentalists, who have quite impressive backgrounds, made outstanding contributions to the overall effect of a wonderful concert.

Mark Mangini, the choral society conductor, with members of the Pierson High School Choir in the background. Durell Godfrey