Can the Muzak: Oratorio Society delivers the real thing

The Oratorio Society of Charlottesville-Albemarle
Sunday, December 15
at Old Cabell Hall Auditorium

We can't escape them.

Certain holiday tunes, once so fun to sing along to when we were kids, now hammer us over the head at every shopping mall and every grocery store. If the places coordinated their playlists, it wouldn't be so bad... to count all the "Santa Babies" I heard last week, I'd have to sprout extra fingers and toes.

Even if marketing research claims that those Frosty Snowmen influence our last-minute shopping, the true spirit of the season can't be summoned by such a slim selection of classics. The overkill just tarnishes Rudolph's red nose.

Sunday, I sought out some different, celebratory interpretations of the Christmas spirit. I returned to Old Cabell Hall, this time to hear The Oratorio Society of Charlottesville-Albemarle's annual Holiday Concert. Now in their 36th season, the group supplemented traditional carols such as "O Holy Night," with elegant choral compositions by 20th century greats Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc.

A seasonal favorite for classical audiophiles, A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, began the afternoon with a delicate plainsong procession. Composed in 1942, during Britten's month-long return voyage from the States to his native England, this work reflects upon human vulnerability; it's easy to imagine the ship, under constant threat of U-boat attack, rocking along the waves– as exposed as his subject, the infant in the manger.

Along with the choir, and the rich soprano solos of Amanda Balestrieri, Ceremony featured the talents of harpist Heidi Lehwalder, who shone during a beautiful interlude between the sixth and seventh carols. The angelic instrument was featured in virtually every carol, drawing melodic textures from arpeggios and hemiolas (as in "This Little Babe").

Following the intermission, Gloria (for soprano, chorus & orchestra, FP 177) added some levity to the mix. Both devout Catholic and witty intellectual, Poulenc composed the controversial work in 1959; critics initially balked at his placement of the sacred theme in such a playful, impish context; however, Poulenc attributed the musical merriment of the selection "Laudamus Te," for example, to the inspiration he gleaned from "Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues" and "serious Benedictine [monks] whom I saw playing soccer one day."

The Charlottesville Symphony Orchestra provided striking accompaniment to the Latin pieces, dispensing joy with plucked-string offbeats and later, in the third movement, a calmer, Debussy-like woodwind melody.

One of the biggest crowd-pleasers was Craig Courtney's Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas. Although the lyrics stayed as true as two turtle doves, each verse adopted (chronologically) famed styles of Western music, cleverly emulating composers such as Clément Janequin, Handel, and Saint-Saens, among others.

The Oratorio Society, once again, put on an excellent concert... and made my happy holidays much happier.


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