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A Song of Hope for New Year

Chorale review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 14th, 2017

Some members of the Cappella Festiva Chamber Choir with Conductor Ronald Bemrich, front center

Arriving early for “Awaken the New Year,” a performance by the Capella Festivia Chamber Choir under Artistic Director Christine Howlett and Guest Conductor Ronald Bemrich, I overheard them practicing at Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie. All seventy or so sounded in good form. The performance began with Benjamin Britten’s “A New Year Carol” and moved on to a couple of pieces by Francis Poulenc. With flexible and imaginative stage re-arrangement, the Men’s Chorus performed two numbers. Although men outnumbered women by two-to-one, it was the women singers who were more accomplished (as is often the case) during the course of the performance.

In Gabriel Faure’s “Tantum Ergo” a delicate balance between both men and women was pleasantly struck. “Cantique de Jean Racine” was far more ravishing to the ear than the English translation. “Rise Up My Love,” based upon The Song of Solomon, by Healey Willan was good, yet not as well sung as I’ve heard this choir perform it in the past. Gerald Finzi’s “My Spirit Sang All Day” with lyrics by Robert Bridges (whose poem when read sounded trite and lame) flamed bright under Finzi’s brilliant orchestration; it was nearly as good as Eric Whitacre’s marvelous “Glow.” Both music and open vowels in the lyric of this piece renders it an ideal chorales work. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Richte mich Gott” was sung with finesse and effortless German diction that one wondered how many ardent rehearsals it had underwent to achieve such sprezzatura quality.

Moving into the contemporary, there were two pieces by Ola Gjello (b. 1978), a Finnish composer who now lives in Manhattan. I confess to be an enthusiast of his work. “Serenity” conveyed both deep mystery and religious experience. There was indeed a mystic calmness about the work amid the ingenuity of its eloquent repetitions. This was followed by Gjello’s “Evening Prayer” with long solo prolog and wandering melodic interludes on saxophone by Christopher Brellosch, who is the Chairman of the Music Department at Dutchess Community College.  Brellosch excelled in tone, nuance, and deft transitions of mood in this work, as the chorus rose to crescendo.

The climax was the folk song “Great Day” arranged by Warren Martin. They performed an encore of this work, the encore being more passionate, uninhibited, and resounding in the nearly full church. Susan Seligman ably accompanied two repertoire songs with her cello. Amid this well-conceived program by Howlett (depicted in teaser photo), James Fitzwilliam from Vassar College played sensitively on piano, and when not playing, he sang in the choir. He’s a barefoot piano player. I’ve heard him play at least half-a-dozen times, but only once shod. Keep a look-out for Howlett;’s crew—thay have a more ambitious program during the coming year.