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December 15, 2013

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The Duluth-based Arrowhead Chorale opened its 2013-14 season on Friday night with a Christmas concert billed as Pause Français. The program began with the choir in the loft at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which is a wonderful place for the choir to be. Music director Stanley Wold began with an uninterrupted performance of the Christmas Midnight Mass (Messe de Minuit pour Noel), composed in 1690 by the very gifted Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The Chorale was joined by string quartet, two flutes, and organ, as well as a series of Renaissance art images projected toward the front of the church.

Though unfamiliar to modern audiences, Charpentier used melodies from several well-known French Christmas carols to convey the text of the Mass. Kyrie was sung by the chorale, then Christe was sung by three men, followed by a return of the chorale for Kyrie. The entirety of the Gloria text was highly rhythmic, coming from the Christmas carol he included. The Credo was more prosaic, even with the darkness of the Crucifixus, another familiar carol tune. The Sanctus was full, and the Agnus Dei was quite melodic, alternating between chorale and trio.

While the lovely sounds filling the sanctuary were well-blended, I couldn’t help feeling that the the overall effect was a bit heavy, drifting toward the Germanic side of the musical spectrum. I missed a certain delicacy, lightness, characteristic of the Parisian musical world at the end of the 17th century.

The chorale then exploded with a tremendous fanfare that included the harp of Janell Lemire and the flute of Paula Gudmundson. Minnesota composer David Cherwien shared his enthusiasm of the Christmas message with this setting of All My Heart Again Rejoices.  Wold moved on to the ‘Salvation is created in the midst of the earth.’  This 1912 setting by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov was one of the highlights of the evening. All 25 singers were engaged, and the variety of Alleluias bounced around the room more than any other piece on the program.

A collection of nine very different pieces brought the Hammered Dulcimer of Paul Imholte into the choral scene. In particular, several works by composer Malcolm Dalglish featured the hammered dulcimer as the instrument accompanying the chorale. The women sang a Christmas Lullaby with a new and fresh Alleluia. Imholte shared a dazzling arrangement of Angels We Have Heard on High,  then supported the chorale as they sang three Appalachian Christmas Carols arranged by Dalglish.

Imholte offered a tantalizing version of The Gypsy Lodger, then headed off into a very haunting set of verses by Dalglish based on a Wendell Berry poem called Water Under Ice. The eleven men of the chorale created a dark glow along with Imholte’s dulcimer. Finally, a new setting of I Saw Three Ships, by Lucille Hands, closed this section.

One final carol, from the pen of Stephen Paulus, who created many arrangements with harp and flute for choral groups everywhere. This setting of We Three Kings included all six verses, with slightly different accompaniment throughout. Lemire and Gudmundson kept an aggressive pace throughout this familiar tune.

Keeping a steady tradition, the chorale asked the audience to sing four seasonal carols to close the concert. This diverse Christmas program is a rich way to celebrate this special season. The Chorale will repeat the program at Gloria Dei Lutheran on 3rd St. at 3pm on Sunday afternoon, preceded by seasonal music from a flute quartet. Hope you can be there for this choral richness.

Sam Black



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