Review: Choral Arts, with Dr. Robert Bode conducting; December 14
By Melinda Bargreen
In all the hustle and bustle that precedes the holidays, music lovers know there is one event guaranteed to provide the most aesthetically beautiful gift of peace.
It’s the annual Christmas concert of Choral Arts, the nationally award-winning Seattle-based chorus that was founded by Richard Sparks (a choral director who also founded the highly regarded Seattle Pro Musica; Sparks now teaches in Texas). Choral Arts is now directed by Dr. Robert Bode, who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, but returns regularly to Seattle for rehearsal periods with Choral Arts.
It was Bode who devised the popular formula for the Christmas concerts: an uninterrupted hour-long flow of beautiful holiday music of several eras, with an instrumental accompaniment that weaves the separate pieces together into a whole. There’s no halt for applause, or any other break in the music, until the last note of the final number.
This year’s program featured something novel: a discreetly amplified guitar instead of the piano accompanying the singers. Guitarist Bob McCaffery-Lent provided beautiful and delicate underlayment for the transitions and for some of the music as well (most memorably in the exquisite performance of Alf Houkom’s challenging “The Rune of Hospitality”). For this listener, however, there’s no question that the piano works better; it is a better balance for the chorus in terms of volume, versatility of sound, and above all, harmonic richness. Perhaps it is coincidental that some of the a cappella works sank slightly in pitch from beginning to end, finishing in a lower key than originally written, and a guitar has fewer options for finessing the transitions.
Among the program’s high points: certainly the Houkom piece, rendered in a delicate web of massed chords and sonorities, and illuminating a text that gives us plenty to ponder. The elegant simplicity of Herbert Howells’ “The Little Door” showed the chorus’ subtlety and blend. The setting of “How Can I Keep from Singing,” by Karen P. Thomas (director of another first-rate chorus, the Seattle Pro Musica), built the plain-spun melody with layers of internal echoes that grew into a rich and vibrant finale.
The audience got a turn, too, with two sing-along carols, culminating in a return of Choral Arts for a charming, honest William Hawley arrangement of “Not One Sparrow is Forgotten.”
Listeners filed out into the cold, wet night, holding on to this gift of music.