Dallas — The Verdigris Ensemble is presenting its Christmas concerts this weekend, featuring a great variety of seasonal music. This review is about the Saturday performance at Northridge Presbyterian Church. The final performance is at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Royal Lane Baptist Church.
Under the direction of music director and conductor Sam Brukhman, there is some excellent singing and interesting selections, most of which were successful.
Their mission is to bring some innovation to choral ensembles, which is a genre that could certainly use some updating, without going all avant-garde like some modernist ensembles. Brukhman has assembled a group of 16 professional singers, both locally as well as from other cities, that are absolutely top-notch.
The repertoire ranged from some traditional Christmas pieces in novel arrangements, some related newly composed works and a couple of world premieres. The concert was based around Clement Clarke Moore poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” interspersed between the musical selections and read by different members of the ensemble. Some accented Moore’s anapestic tetrameter in a singsongy manner while others read the verses more as lines of text as you would with Shakespeare.
As always, Brukhman’s choral conducting is exemplary. He is expressive and precise while giving the singers space to be spontaneous. His beat frame is limited, which is ideal, and rarely calls attention to itself. The ensemble’s intonation is uniformly excellent. The blend of the voices is equally astonishing, considering the fact that some of the singers had opera house-sized voices while others are much more lyric. It was a lot of singing, 90 minutes without an intermission, but they only sounded tired after the end when they sang an unneeded encore.
The program opened with “Goodnight Moon” by Eric Whitacre, a lovely gentle piece that would have made a much better program closer than Michael Weir’s music arrangement of “Christmastime is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Thomas Hyde’s short and straightforward setting of the traditional text, “Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sang” using jazz-influenced harmonies.
A work by Roderick Williams was a surprise since the British baritone is best known has an opera singer. It was also the most creatively written piece on the program, using some unusual vocal techniques combined with transitional harmonies. The vocal ensemble was excellent in putting Whitacre’s disparate elements into a fanfare of a piece.
A sing-along of “Deck the Halls” took a novel twist, pitting half of the audience against the other half in a contest of which group could sing the loudest contest. Other carols and Christmastide music were on the program in arrangements by composers ranging from the well-known, such as William Walton’s “What Cheer?” and Peter Wilhousky famous arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” to the lesser known, such as the Norwegian pianist Ola Gjeilo’s haunting arrangement of “The First Noel.” Ralph Allwood’s jaunty shy at “Jingle Bells” offered some comic relief. As did Andrew Carter’s wild setting of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which was filled with comic effects and familiar quotes galore.
After hearing his “Goodnight Moon,” much was expected from Eric Whitacre’s setting of Ogden Nash’s doggerel poem “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Clause.” Unfortunately, it was not a success: too long, musically labored and over-composed. The words were difficult to understand, and they are the point of Nash’s clever poem.
A closing comment: Their holiday concert is completely Christmas, without even a reference to the other holidays that are also wildly celebrated at this same time of year. It also was completely based on the snowy northern hemisphere, which completely eliminates half of the planet that is celebrating high summer. This is an over-used complaint, I know. Most concerts around this time of year take a dashing-through-the-snow-creche-laden approach, but it was disappointing for such an innovative and contemporary choral group to not find something else from the world of holiday music.