Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Sheila-current3By Sheila Abrams

Harmonium, the Madison-based chorus directed by Dr. Anne Matlack, is an assemblage of superb singers. They are beautifully rehearsed and, if their holiday program of Carols and Lullabies is any indication, they rarely if ever miss a beat. And the choice of material is exceptional.

But Harmonium has another ingredient, evident in the program presented on Dec. 10 and 11 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown. That ingredient was show business, that very thing like which, as the song says, there is no other business. Matlack, an extraordinary director, uses everything at her disposal to infuse her group’s performances with entertainment value. This was fully in evidence at the recent concert, as it has been in other performances we have attended. If you go to see and hear Harmonium, you can be assured you will have fun.

Last weekend’s program consisted of an amazing variety of pieces, spanning centuries (15th through 21st), cultures, languages and musical styles. Many chorus members had the opportunity to sing solos, and the wonderful Harmonium Chamber Singers (left) performed a set of their own. This included two pieces by 16th century composers and two by composers who are still living.

At the center of the program was a collection of 10 songs entitled Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest, by Conrad Susa, based on a collection of traditional Spanish and Mexican Christmas carols. The ten songs were sung in Spanish.

Other high points, were Kalinka, a popular Russian folksong as arranged by Vladimir Prokhorov, and, most arrestingly, Pengyou, Ting, a Christmas carol arranged by Carolyn Jennings and sung, exquisitely, in Chinese by soprano Jennifer Huang.

Obviously not all the pieces on the program were Christmas-themed. A case in point was Mayn Yingele, (Yiddish for My Little Boy), a poem set to music by Gene Glickman, who was on hand in the audience to hear his work performed. The poem that forms the text was written by Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld, and it chronicles the sadness of the hardworking immigrant father who never gets home until his treasured child in asleep. The Harmonium performances over the weekend were the world premiere of this piece.

There was not much in the way of familiar Christmas music until Matlack (left) announced it was time for a sing-along. Printed in the program was the music for God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, with brand-new lyrics written for the occasion by Matlack’s talented husband, Jabez Van Cleef. The new lyrics, acknowledging the diversity of Harmonium’s audience, include a nod to Morristown, and voice universal wishes for peace, harmony and justice. The audience joined in happily.

As the program reached its conclusion, Matlack asked that the audience refrain from joining in as the chorus sang a normally familiar tune, Jingle Bells. This unconventional version, a favorite of Harmonium audiences, was arranged by British composer David Blackwell and might suggest that the egg nog was spiked. It was a delight.

A congratulatory nod should go to four instrumentalists who accompanied the chorus: Merynda Adams on harp, Christopher Keniff on guitar, George Moser on the organ and Joe Keefe on marimba, vibraphone and percussion. And appreciation to Joan Tracy, who serves as rehearsal pianist.

Whatever the female equivalent of a showman is, Matlack is one par excellence. Her musical pins in order, she uses whatever works to communicate with the audiences. The singers move around. The acoustics (and they are wonderful at St. Peter’s) give her something more to play with. Her one chorus seems brand new with each song. You will never be bored by Harmonium.