The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of Dec. 8, 2003.
For this year's New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert NMSO resident conductor and chorus director Roger Melone devised an engaging program that gave a fresh slant to music of the season. Sunday afternoon its multiple virtues included a gifted use of the space at the Cathedral Church of St. John and a pleasurable journey through some less frequently heard music.
Corelli's Christmas Concerto, a Baroque concerto grosso for string orchestra, served as the program warmup. It is a handsome work with some dramatic contrasts along with the usual invigorating rhythms. Though the rhythmic profile could have been sharper, there was some graceful playing, marred only by an ungainly drop into the final pastorale movement, a slip forgiven in the goodness that followed.
It was an inspired idea to infuse the holiday concert with the richness of a Monteverdi Magnificat from his Vespers of 1610, a magnificent and seminal Renaissance collection of sacred music that pointed toward the future. A great dramatist and colorist, Monteverdi was a major figure in the development of opera, his first effort L'Orfeo of 1609 being an early marker in the field.
His later decades were spent in Venice where he exploited the rich spatial possibilities of St. Mark's Cathedral.
Characteristic of the 1610 Vespers, the Magnificat uses a dramatic and widely varied sonic palette. The vocal combinations continually shift, the female voices elaborating over a slow chant from the male voices, sometimes the reverse, or the men and women may sing alternate sections, or a soprano duet unfolds over a chant from the men, and so on in a stream of glorious invention.
To convey a sense of the spatial drama Melone cleverly placed the chorus around the audience in a U-shape, single spaced down both side aisles and across the back. It was a tricky business just to coordinate the forces but well worth the effort. With a firm hand and steady beat Melone kept everyone together and the chorus responded with some expressive singing.
The second half was devoted to the Christmas Oratorio of Saint-Saëns for chorus, string orchestra and organ. Written in 1858 when the composer was only 23, it offers a charming alternative to the familiar drama of Handel's Messiah or the depths of Bach's Christmas Oratorio. A contrapuntal organ prelude, ``in the style of Bach'' as the score says, but far less dense, gives the work a gentle start. It sets the tender mood of the piece which is full of warm romantic harmonies and graceful melodies that speak touchingly of faith.
Melone conducted with affection and knowledge, conveying the music's quiet beauty and pulling some well-shaped phrasing from the chorus.
Soprano Marilyn Thomas Bernard in particularly fine voice, mezzo-soprano Drea Pressley, contralto Jane Ronca-Washburn, tenor Eric Parker and baritone Brian Podolny made an expressive team of soloists with warm, relaxed singing from all five.
A passage of particular beauty unfolded in the trio between Bernard and the two men, Tecum principium (My soul doth magnify). The three made the rapturous lines of faith glow, soaring upward over luscious harmonies from the harp and organ accompaniment.
The Oratorio ended with the radiant outburst of a final ``Alleluia!'' from organ, chorus, orchestra and soloists that brought the afternoon to a rich and satisfying close.