Merry Christmas to all! One event that is becoming as much a part of my Christmas as gift-wrapping and Christmas trees is singing with the Tennessee Chamber Chorus, conducted by Dr. Cameron LaBarr. Our concert series in Chattanooga, Cleveland, and Knoxville last week marks our 3rd Christmas together. It is always a pleasure to sing with this stellar group of professional musicians from all over the country.
Renowned composer and former Washington Post music critic, Daniel Gawthrop, attended our Chattanooga concert this past week and gave a glowinig (and oh-so-accurate) review. If you weren't able to attend, see what he had to say and maybe it will persuade you to join us next year so you too can add hearing the Tennessee Chamber Chorus to your list of Christmas traditions:
"Yesterday my wife and I drove to Chattanooga to hear the annual Christmas Concert of the Tennessee Chamber Chorus. It’s probably worth noting that there are not many performances that we would drive three hours each way to hear, but this one was more than worth it!
How many times have we seen a conductor choose to open a program with a chant in order to evoke a sense of antiquity and perhaps to start with the oldest piece on the program before working forward through musical history? It’s a reasonable gambit and it ought to work more frequently than it does, but too often it winds up missing the mark and sounding a bit like a gimmick. That it succeeded wonderfully on this occasion for these singers and their director Cameron LaBarr is due in some part to the semi-darkened, lofty and reverberant spaces of Christ Episcopal Church where they presented their concert, but it was also helped by effortlessly evocative and engaging singing of the medieval “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”. It effectively set a tone of mystery and a reassuring peace which marked the entire evening.
Michael McGlynn’s “Sanctus” was beautifully sung next, with lots of subtle dynamic shading and the amazing intonation which this style of music relies upon. It was followed by a return to a much earlier period with motets by Victoria (exquisitely shaped) and Josquin. The set concluded, back in the twenty-first century, with an exciting new setting of “Laudemus Cum Armonia” by Tennessee composer John Wykoff, a young man whose career certainly bears watching.
The original Praetorius harmonization of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” is often passed over in favor of more elaborate settings by later composers (including my own) but there is plenty of richness to be found in a sensitive reading of the Praetorius. The TCC found and brought out all of the music here, responding smoothly and precisely to LaBarr’s thoughtful direction. This was paired with the iconic Howells “A Spotless Rose” in a performance which would put any of the fine English choirs in the shadow without apparent effort. Tenor soloist Chris Oglesby sang with conviction and great beauty.
The first half concluded with a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, “Avoonan dbishmayya” (2011) by San Francisco composer Ilyas Iliya. The difficult tenor solo was flawlessly rendered by soloist Alan Stevens, who was pivotal in bringing the sense of haunting mysticism to the choir’s performance of this powerful work.
The second half of the evening included mostly familiar carols in largely familiar settings. This very familiarity can make such a programming decision a somewhat risky one, but LaBarr and his singers approached these pieces with such integrity and faithfulness that they seemed suddenly new again, to the delight of all.
Throughout the evening the audience was treated to such ringing cadences, such detailed dynamics and such carefully, thoughtfully shaped phrases that every piece seemed like a revelatory world premiere, no matter how ancient it may have been. This level of music making is rare anywhere, and it is a genuine and welcome wonder to find it being done consistently by the Tennessee Chamber Chorus.
Finally, as an old hand in the radio business I am perhaps more sensitized than most to the potential pitfalls and all-too-rare successes of the craft of programming. The art of selecting the materials and ordering them in a way which provides a listener with an evening-long cohesive musical experience, rather than simply a wandering procession of unconnected pieces, is an invisible and often unappreciated part of creating a concert. Conductor Cameron LaBarr has a natural gift for envisioning the flow from piece to piece and from set to set, and has consistently created programs which take his audiences on a journey. Bravo, Maestro!"