A Cathedral Christmas

The Texas Choral Consort's holiday concert was a tale of two choirs: one inspired, the other flat

Arts Review

A Cathedral Christmas

Central Christian Church, Dec. 15

The outside temperature near freezing, a lively crowd joined the members of the Texas Choral Consort in the pews of the cozy Central Christian Church amidst the red poinsettias and warm yellow lighting, an archetypal holiday concert setting. As interim Artistic Director Arlie Langager took to the podium, the singers rose from the audience, filling the aisles for an ethereal and delicate opening procession, the lovely 14th century chant "Puer Natus."

To follow such a promising opening was Mendelssohn's triumphant "Magnificat." But aside from the lively, confident solo quartet, the ensemble's performance was flat and uninspired. This tale of two choirs, one inspired and one disengaged, persisted throughout the performance.

The Consort's season is a mix of auditioned and nonauditioned performances, bringing people from different musical backgrounds into the concert setting. On the spectrum of Austin's arts ecology, TCC fills that important space between the professional ensemble and the grassroots community organization. This dynamic presents the unique opportunity – and challenge – of exploring an artistic program that not only inspires the varied performers but also presents an experience that is both genuine and cohesive.

The concert's first half ended with Mozart's ode to Mary, "Regina Coeli." Accolades to Kirsten Watson, whose solo soprano soared through the piece with a sweet, pitch-perfect delivery that was downright angelic. The ensemble as a whole, however, was again restrained and dynamically stagnant. Given the lush accompaniment of the Consort's orchestra – most especially a noble brass section – the chorus' lackluster delivery called into question whether the group was given overly ambitious material.

This notion was dispelled entirely, though, in the opening notes of the second act. The program left the traditional canon to tackle Daniel Pinkham's 1957 "Christmas Cantata." A bold, visceral work with tricky rhythms and plainsong sonorities, this was heavyweight Christmas fare. The chorus performed the opening movement, which bears resemblance to the grandeur of Carl Orff, with a vigor that was entirely lacking in the first half of the concert. From the volume and confidence of the sound to the clarity of the sectional work, this was a completely different ensemble. For the drone-based "O Magnum Mysterium," the high voices achieved an otherworldly beauty. In the final "Gloria," Pinkham breaks the chorus into sections for jaunty, renaissance-style dances. The intense rhythmic and harmonic material was handled with zeal by the choir. This was a sophisticated performance in every way, and it was clear that the singers were enjoying themselves immensely.

The concert continued with an odd, feverishly organ-heavy setting of "The First Noel" and a collection of other well-known carols, as well as John Rutter's brand-new "Winchester Te Deum." The addition of another modern work to the program produced the same result as with the Pinkham: a steady, engaging performance.

The concert ended as it began, with the chorus back in the aisles for "Silent Night." All in all, the two modern performances were thrilling and the carols delightful. Had I only heard the first act, though, I would have been left with the false notion that the ensemble wasn't up to the level of performance demanded by the work chosen.

I couldn't help but wonder if the disconnect was with the choices themselves. Perhaps the essence of an ensemble that sets out to bring performers of different levels together rests on the degree to which the music connects with those performing. Clearly, the Texas Choral Consort can achieve moving, technically sound results. What wasn't certain, at least during parts of this program, was if it really wanted to.

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A Cathedral Christmas, Texas Choral Consort, Arlie Langager, Kirsten Watson

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