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Review: ISO Classical Christmas

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Sylvia McNair
  • Sylvia McNair

Scottish Rite Cathedral; Dec. 10

Festive and celebratory aren't the first terms which come to mind when recalling the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 14th annual Classical Christmas on Saturday, created and conducted by former ISO music director Raymond Leppard. Not when the opening work is Gabriel Fauré's Requiem (1890). Not when the Tchaikovsky theme Anton Arensky uses for his Variations for String Orchestra, Op. 15, heard after intermission, is elegiac in nature. Leppard, in an opening comment to the audience, sort of implied that given the state of our economy, there is perhaps less to celebrate than typically, in an effort to explain his programming the Requiem.

Still, the Scottish Rite Ballroom was fully packed, and the music, whether apropos or not for the yuletide season, was rendered at Leppard's usual high-performance level. Joining him was a Hoosier favorite, soprano Sylvia McNair, along with IU's Apollo's Voice Choir under Jan Harrington, the latter group a mainstay of this series since its 1998 launch. McNair sang Three Scottish Folk Songs and a sequence of six carols, both sets arranged for soprano and small orchestra by Leppard, something at which he is clearly a master. Apollo's Voice was heard only in the Requiem.

Fauré's setting of the Catholic Mass for the Dead is one of the Romantic era's three best known ones, featuring seven sections, all soft, reverential and paved with lush, late 19th-century, pastel harmonies. This contrasts with Verdi's Manzoni Requiem, which adds the theatrical "Dies Irae" Fauré had omitted but is yet a great work of the mature Italian opera composer--and with Berlioz' bombastic Requiem, which I've always considered overrated.

From the "Introit and Kyrie" through the sixth section, "Libera me," we hear sad, yearning and wistful music, sometimes with orchestra, sometimes with a "positive" (pos-i-TEEF) organ. The 26 Apollo's Voice singers supported solo work by baritone Samuel Spade and soprano Arwen Myers, all of whom delivered matchless mood setting. However, in the seventh section, "In paradisum," the female singers ascend to the loftiest registers in a mood-shifting, hope-giving conclusion.

The Arensky Variations (1894) are taken from Tchaikovsky's song, "Legend: Christ in His Garden," and is probably Arensky's best known work. Each of the six variations showed the ISO string complement at its best: precise, articulate when called for, and communicative of the generally pensive nature of the program. At 84, Leppard appears to have lost none of his conducting prowess.

For the Three Scottish Folk Songs, Leppard wrote a flute obbligato part for his principal, Karen Evans-Moratz, who sat alone in the woodwind section while the strings carried the support load for McNair. Both Evans-Moratz and McNair showed their usual high-level artistry throughout these also-rather-wistful songs.

The six-carol sequence which ended the program once again showed McNair as an excellent vocalizer, projecting the same rich sound she's given us through the years, since she was first "discovered" for us as a young IU graduate by former ISO music director (from 1976 to 1987) John Nelson. Her final carol, "Lord of the Dance," ended the program on a more positive note.

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