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Christmas Songfests: Bard & Millbrook

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Dec 14th, 2015

Dawn Upshaw

Bard College’s A Winter Songfest at the Sosnoff Theater headed by soprano Dawn Upshaw offered a two-part program: the first half sampled Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (opera and art song), while the second half featured twentieth-century American pop tunes. Dawn Upshaw, who has appeared at New York’s Metropolitan opera over 300 times, sang most beautifully in German and Hebrew, yet the event showcased the work of her students.

Among the numerous wonderful performances of the students, standouts included: soprano Anna-Sophia Neher’s superb rendition of Mozart’s Alleluia; baritone Rolfe Dauz deftly singing the lullaby “Still, Still, Still”; sopranos Adanya Dunn and Zoe Johnson lyrically performing the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé. The first half of the program ended with a turn toward Americana with Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” sung charmingly by Lizabeth Malanga. All of Upshaw’s students gathered round for Richard Rodgers’ amusing “Sing for Your Supper.”

Mary Stuart Masterson narrated “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” to the fifth grade chorus of the Chancellor Livingston Elementary School from Rhinebeck, which at times sang off-key, yet they added a charming atmosphere to the inclusive spirit of the occasion. Mezzo-soprano Kelly Newbery and tenor Corey Dalton Hart rose to a winning performance of Frank Loesser’s “Baby, it’s Cold Outside,” while baritone Nathaniel Sullivan lifted Berlin’s “White Christmas” beyond the bounds of cliché .

Dawn Upshaw and students at Fisher Center

The concert concluded with the whole cast singing the traditional “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” accompanied boldly by the Winter Songfest Brass. While much of the song material romanticized the falling of snowflakes, none fell, and they may not fall before this Christmas, yet the program offered a delightful medley of old and recent, classical and classy pop.

That evening in Millbrook, Lyall Memorial Federated Church put on its first Christmas concert under choral director, composer, and pianist Daniel Koch. Word-of-mouth buzz from several members of the Smithfield Church choir (who told me of their rehearsal excitement) drew me to this event. Koch, whose rhythmic jazz-style piano playing leans toward earthy bass lines, premiered three of his own works: a Prelude, his fabulous choral song “It was Good,” and a Postlude.

The chorus of twenty-five offered a marvelous rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Koch’s arrangement of “What Child is this in the Moon of Wintertime” by Jesuit Jean de Brebeuf (the first European to adequately learn the Huron language) leavened deep Carolingian rhythms into this surprisingly modern Christmas song (written in the 17th century) which offered an aesthetic revelation to me. In a more traditional vein they sang with animated joy one of my all-time Christmas favorites, Antonio Vivladi’s Gloria where Millbrook violinist Rob Murphy excelled (depicted in front page teaser image).

Soprano Caitlin Mandracchia was superb in lonely mood and fragile texture with Gustav Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Benjamin Harlin’s “African Alleluia” rocked the church with its syncopated rhythm and had me swaying in seat. Six local girls from seven to eleven sang a medley of traditional carols; there was no doubt—they could sing as well as anyone in the adult choir. Tenor Mensah Robinson admirably provided a rich melodic line to Koch’s original “It was Good.” The young prodigies joined the chorus for a rousing rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Faileigh Thorne with Conservatory director Bob Martin at the post concert party

This was the first Lyall Christmas concert and I’m confident that a firm foundation has been set, yet if more people attend next year, I don’t know where they will sit, as this performance was to church capacity. There is something more powerfully intimate in a Christmas concert performed inside a church rather than on a large theatrical stage. The wide tradition of exciting Christmas music continues to grow with innovative rearrangements of old material, as well as the invention of new compositions.