After the solemn lighting of candles at Smithfield Church, there was a full audience—something is that is somewhat unusual in our current era of IT culture. The Christmas & Tea Concert opened with Emcee Denise Jordan Finley introducing violinist Rob Murphy and violist Piotr Kargul to play George Fryderick Handel’s “For Unto us a Child is Born,” which everyone knows to be a welcoming ice-breaker. They were followed by The Smithfield Church Ensemble (arranged by Matt Finley) singing J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”
Violinist Akiko Kamagawara and pianist Michael Pennnington played Claude Debussy’s “La Plus Que Lente” (It’s More when Slow) with synchronic ambiance and Kamagawara excelling in lyric delicacy. Pennington then launched into Johannes Brahms’ Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, no. 2 with a spontaneous, impulsive edge to his performance on the 1863 Steinway.
Lynette Benner performed an enchanting solo flute rendition of Claude Debussy’s vagabond masterpiece “Syrinx.” This was a hard act to follow but a local poet, who has lived in the Millbrook area for about thirty years and has published several books, read a poem entitled “Joyslide” that fortuitously imitated the ambient hijinks of Debussy, James Joyce, Fats Waller, Stan Getz, and a religious leaflet floating in the gutter.
The congregation amiably sang “Angels We have Heard on High” and “Hark! The Herald Angles Sing.” Rev. Douglas Grandgeorge introduced Dr. Hampson A. Sisler, a noted organ composer of international stature, with an off-hand, disarming eloquence and memorable anecdote.
This was the World Premiere of Sisler’s “A Midnight Clear: Ten Christmas Miniatures for Organ.” For me, it is a difficult project to assess premieres, especially when I might be the only one writing on the subject. Among the ten miniatures, which sometimes quoted or alluded to traditional Christmas songs (sometimes in disguised sub-themes), there were several remarkable compositions (which were just published by Lorenz) that will live long after Dr. Sisler; they will be played on organs in churches around the globe if Christianity survives. That is an impressive event in the history of Dutchess County and the State of New York.
Matt Finley responded with “Trumpeter’s Lullaby” by Leroy Anderson with ensemble backing, yet in the spirit of musical comradery Finley’s solos (and ensemble backed) flugel horn was not anti-climatical, but authoritative with that magic Gabriel touch. Denise Jordan Finley sang “I Saw three Ships,” a lovely yet imaginatively, slyly humorous song about the seaside birth of the prophet from Nazareth, as she picked and strummed guitar with entrancing rhythm.
To conclude: everyone sang “Joy to the World” and then partook of refreshments in the basement with local artists like Emily Fuller, the concert players, and renowned surrealist painter form Italy, Fabrizio Breschi, and an assortment of the most interesting local characters who deserve to be in an Anthony Trollope novel, if only there was a novelist of that caliber in the neighborhood. As participant, I had a lively conversation with Mexican pianist Oscar Rodriguez. Christmas was here and in the heart!