"Join us as we explore Christmas traditions from as many diverse European cultures as we can within one concert," heralded the marketing copy for Texas Early Music Project's Noël: An Early Christmas Eurotour. Upon sitting down with my program, I realized how accurate that description was: 23 pieces were to be performed, surveying music of France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, England, Ireland, Hungary, and more. Readers of my previous reviews of Austin's early music concerts know that I'm a big fan of both early music in general and its robust local representation in particular. But I must admit to having entered into my first TEMP concert with the reservation that an epically lengthy evening was ahead. Thanks to the programming sensibilities of Artistic Director Daniel Johnson, however, my fears were quickly allayed. We were whisked away on a fast-paced tour of Europe, and while the intonation wasn't always spot-on or the ensemble work constantly precise, the musical gems made up for any rough patches along the way.
Perhaps the evening's most unique moment was heard in the kickoff to our excursion: David Francis' performance of the traditional "Cadet Rousselle" on the serinette, a relatively obscure instrument consisting primarily of a little barrel organ that emanates a high-pitched, flutelike timbre. The first serinette appeared in 1700s France, but the instrument played here was singular, having been crafted by Francis himself. Its distinctive sound provided an appropriately intriguing opening to a program full of pieces one doesn't hear every holiday, many arranged by Johnson.
The opening quarter, covering traditional French, Czech, and Italian works, closed with what was easily one of the concert's best-executed pieces: "Noël nouvelet," featuring soloists Jenifer Thyssen and Meredith Ruduski. But the highlight of the concert for me was the gorgeous "Seven Rejoices of Mary," a traditional Irish carol arranged by Johnson. Solos provided by voices of especially diverse timbres (those of Cayla Cardiff, David Lopez, Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, and Thyssen) wafted through the hall, filling it with pastoral sounds of Ireland that most listeners would surely find familiar. Indeed, it provided one of the night's most recognizable and soulful offerings.
Such heartwarming sounds, those which commune intimately with the spirit, were welcome indeed on Dec. 14, a day fraught with tragedy. In his opening remarks, Johnson reflected on the healing power of music shared together, and, though the evening included a couple of false starts when he ceased the playing and restarted a piece, the audience didn't seem to mind. Johnson and company's focus on getting it right – as opposed to muddling through – served as a potent reminder of the power of fresh beginnings. A special kind of empathy rode the waves of that evening's songs of Christmas, one that implored as steadfastly as did Dickens, "God bless us, everyone."
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