The reviews below, jointly published by Phindie and Drama Around the Globe, present two aspects:
1. A History and short overview of the achievements of each musical group.
2. My Observations of their concerts.
Let’s hope that we can visit theaters and concert halls again next year. In this spirit:
Have a Happy, creative, and Covid-free New Year.
“The Orpheus club performs its Christmas, winter and spring concerts at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and at the Kimmel Center. Its Twelfth Night Revels performance is held at the Orpheus clubhouse on South Van Pelt Street each January.” (Wikipedia)
Henrik Eger: Orpheus Club of Philadelphia Virtual Christmas Concert 2020: The quality of the voices, the originality of the videos—which even juxtaposes singers each wearing a mask with a photo of the same singer without a mask, and the blending in of songs performed at the elegant Academy of Music in the past where thousands of people were singing along—created one of the most joyful choral holiday experiences.
Henrik: A Slice of Pie: Music by Melissa Dunphy, Poetry by Feminista Jones: One of Australia’s greatest gifts for Philadelphia is Melissa Dunphy, the composer of the Gonzales Cantata, the musical equivalent to The Investigation by Peter Weiss, based on the transcripts of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Dunphy took the entire transcript of the Gonzales hearings and turned them into an equally eye-opening trial on stage.
She used strong Baroque elements for her music in the Gonzales Cantata, wrote many other pieces, quite a few in a more academic, abstract style, but for this Christmas concert, she used a mixture of American jazz and dream choirs, sung magnificently by the newly named Mendelssohn Chorus. My fear that I would hear atonal music which I usually only can stomach when performed by modern ballet dancers dissipated within seconds: This music made me want not only to eat more pies, but more importantly listen to sounds which made me feel at home, but also lyrics that made me think.
Adding to the down-to-earthness of this musical gem, this witty recording of her Slice of Pie, actually includes Dunphy herself preparing a pie, and mother proudly taking it out of the oven, followed by other people who are eating various forms of baked goods.
Given that way too many older folks have died of Covid-19 infections, I was moved when I saw an elderly couple eating a homemade pie--clearly relishing the joint experience. I appreciated that Dunphy and her lyricists, together with the chorus, the musicians, and the videographers, managed to make me think without being confronted by an angry manifesto. Rather, Dunphy manages to let us experience the joy of the holidays, but also gifts us with the awareness of what can happen to large numbers of people if we allow ignorance, greed, and exploitation to rule a country.
It was the first time that I saw the brilliant new conductor, Dominick DiOrio, wearing a festive red jacket, conducting over 70 singers, and the three musicians—Eric Schweingruber on the trumpet, Nathan Pence on bass, and Travis Goffredo on drums—leading to one of the most joyful holiday choral experiences.
Henrik: What makes this program unique is not just the music and the joy the PGMC singers bring to the audience, but the mixture of highlights from previous holiday concerts with new Zoom recordings. We see close ups of all the participants singing beautifully in their own homes, identified by their first name, and with the lyrics being projected onto the screen. I also liked the rendition of Ma’oz Tzur, the Hanukkah song, presented by one member in Hebrew with great dignity.
When two singers sang “Grown-up Christmas List,” supported by the chorus, I was pretty moved, aware of the violence that surrounds us, and yet hope living on: “Do you remember me?/I sat upon your knee/ I wrote to you/With childhood fantasies.// [. . .] My grown-up Christmas list/Not for myself/But for a world in need.//No more lives torn apart/That wars would never start/And time would heal all hearts.//And everyone would have a friend/And right would always win/And love would never end.//”
Of all the many Christmas concerts I have seen, I never witnessed a conductor, dressed in his black tails, joining eight guardsmen, dressed in red uniforms, jointly performing “Favorite One” with some pretty complex choreographed movements by Sean Toczydlowski with their hands and arms, even their legs and feet moving rapidly in unison—a feat that brought down the house.
For the record, this concert may be the only one where the producers gave themselves permission to earn some urgently needed funds by including commercials by a vodka company. Purists may not like it, but a chorus must survive, not only artistically but also financially, given the many expenses.
Henrik: A Philly POPS Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season: Of all the groups which I saw perform this season, the beloved Philly POPS conducted by David Charles Abell, made sure that the violinists, all wearing masks, sitting in the middle of the stage, were protected by large Plexiglas walls from their colleagues who played wind instruments (“Blasinstrumente” in German = blowing instruments)—a realistic reminder of how musicians, including singers, are almost as endangered as medical staff at hospitals.
The care that went into this production confirmed again the professionalism of the Philly POPS, including the protection of their guest singer, Broadway’s Mandy Gonzalez, and the members of the orchestra, who not only looked classy with their black tuxedos and cheerful bow ties and/or elegant long black dresses. The chorus took the deadly Covid threat seriously, so much so, that when the orchestra played, accompanied by the large POPS Festival Chorus, and with the conductor inviting us to sing along traditional carols, I almost went ashen when I saw their production of the most famous of all Christmas songs, Austria’s “Stille Nacht”—“Silent Night”:
Nothing hit me as hard about the seriousness of life as their version of the holiest of Christmas songs when nothing appeared on the screen but a flickering candle, before we saw the happy-looking singers cheering us up with their carols, but within seconds the colors of their faces and outfits faded into stark black and white images. These dark figures reminded me of the people of all ages who had already gone from this life and that this version confirmed the reality of the brevity of all our lives—but this concert also invited us to make every moment count.
We wouldn’t be in America if it weren’t for the next song wishing all of us a “Merry Christmas” with the conductor suddenly showing up from behind a window, wearing reindeer antlers and singing like an overenthusiastic reindeer, which made me laugh and forget the sadness I experienced with the eye-opening black and white scene.
The concert included a guest performance by Seattle’s pianist Charlie Albright; an unusual jazz version of “Amazing Grace” played on the trumpet by the Philly POPS artistic director of jazz, Terell Stafford; and continued with many more songs and a special performance by the Gospel Choir of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (founded in 1792), directed by Walter Blocker, who sang “Hark! The Herald, Christ is Born,” with great enthusiasm with the women dressed in African dresses and headgear, more colorful and exuberant than anything the elite in Britain wears at the annual Ascot Racecourse.
The concert ends with a jubilant performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah,” presented by the Philly POPS Festival Chorus, the St. Thomas Gospel Choir, and the Philadelphia Boys Choir. To my amazement, the director took the risk of conducting the orchestra live while the recorded video of all the performers—put together with great care by Austin Berner, the sound editor, and spliced together with split-second accuracy by videographer Jeffrey Masino—was running in sync with the Philly POPS.
What a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s concert, filled to brim with surprises, both funny and serious.
“Riccardo Muti hailed the boys as a "gem" at the performance of the concert version of Puccini's Tosca with internationally acclaimed soloists. [. . .] During the 1990s, the Choir added Benjamin Britten's War Requiem to its repertoire under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch. [. . .] Each year, the Pennsylvania Ballet hosts the Choir as part of their seasonal favorite, The Nutcracker. Internationally, the Choir singers have performed for the Royal Families of Sweden, Denmark, England, Thailand and in over 30 countries around the world. [. . .] They have also sung at the White House for four presidents.” (Wikipedia)
Henrik: Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale Winter Concert 2020: Jeffrey R. Smith, the conductor, describes in detail how he and a team of experts manage to get over 100 boys to sing at home without being able to hear anyone other than a recorded music track and seeing their artistic director conduct a virtual, non-visible chorus—before, after many days of splicing everything together we get this chorus sing in harmony. I have never seen anyone who explained this process so well that I understood the complexity of this time-consuming task. Alas, the overabundance of Christian graphics tend to distract from the overall high quality of this program.
However, seeing little boys reciting passages from the Christmas story in between musical numbers with great joy, added to the video. A Jewish boy, sitting next to a menorah, introduces “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Candles” in Ladino), a lively Sephardic Jewish Hanukkah and New Year’s song with the English translation of the original lyrics projected onto the screen—one of the best Hanukkah song renditions I have ever heard. The scene of a little black boy in front of a tree in his neighborhood enthusiastically talking about Christmas made me think of a 10 year old Martin Luther King, Jr. in his neighborhood in Atlanta reaching out to the world in 1939—the outbreak of World War II—with a message of hope.
“When you believe” from The Prince of Egypt brings together both the Philadelphia Boys Choir and the Philadelphia Girls Choir—a joyful ending with over 300 voices.
“Cultural diversity and personal development are essential elements of our program. Ensembles of the Choir are invited to sing at public performances at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker and the National Constitution Center. The Concerto ensemble also travels and performs internationally for a yearly summer tour.” (Philadelphia Girls Choir website)
Henrik: Philadelphia Girls Choir Holiday Concert 2020: For this virtual concert, the choir also invited the American Boychoir from Princeton, NJ, the Princeton Girls Choir, and sang one piece with the Philadelphia Boys Choir. I particularly appreciated the graphics which showed beautiful scenes in nature in between numbers to which religious and non-religious people can relate, and I valued the international Christmas and New Year’s songs in Hebrew and Icelandic in their holiday repertoire.
This concert comes to a joyful close with all the girls slowly walking through a field next to a barn, all keeping a distance of more than six feet from each other, slowly moving forward, singing, each picking up a gift box—except a very young little girl with braids, who walks around unable to find her gift. The Philadelphia Girls Choir concert ends with a charming surprise.
This review is published jointly by Phindie and Drama Around The Globe.