Ralph Vaughan Williams' Christmas cantata "Hodie" ("This Day") may not be as extravagant a seasonal gift as, say, Handel's "Messiah," butit's no inconsequential stocking-stuffer, either.
Set to poetic texts by Milton, Hardy and others, and to the gospels and the Book of Common Prayer, "Hodie" is scored for chorus, orchestra and soloists. It is vintage Vaughan Williams choral music; lush, pastoral interludes alternating with rousing fanfares that flirt with movie music but hold fast to the principles of good taste, courtesy of the composer's talent, sincerity and "veddy British" sense of proportion.
"Hodie" was accorded a very nice performance by the Arundel VocalArts Society at St. Mary's Church in Annapolis on Saturday evening. There are a lot of things about Christmas in November that make me nervous, but if you have to jump the gun, music is the way to do it andthe Vaughan Williams cantata conducted by Ava Shields was quite a pleasant opening to the Christmas marathon of '91.
To begin with, the AVAS singers obviously worked extremely hard on this music, which is far from easy, and came to love it a great deal. They sang with enthusiasm, character and a rhythmic assurance that only singers willingto count like mad can muster. Good for them, and good for Ava Shields and her deputies who prepared them.
It is regrettable that more of the hushed awe of the "Kyrie eleison" sequence wasn't captured. The singers simply took the "mezzo forte full-speed-ahead approach," which didn't begin to capture the devotional content of the text.
Again on the plus side, Shields employed seven of her sopranos in "Hodie's" narrative portions and they sounded thoroughly integrated and quite lovely.
Her soloists were also put to good use. Once he got past his initial entrance, tenor Stephen Stokes was in good form as were soprano Janet Crisalli and baritone Reginald Allen.
A fine-sounding pickup orchestra was engaged. The brasses were particularly effective, though more attentive balancing from the podium would have keptthe horns and trumpets from overwhelming the soloists at numerous junctures.
Two short selections opened the concert and were performed far less effectively than was the principal work.
A choral setting of Psalm 24 composed by Phillip Pope, the ensemble's accompanist, deserved a more committed reading than it received -- that is ironic,since it was conducted by the composer.
The piece contains many nice passages that might have been brought out dramatically, but the sum total of Pope's conducting seemed to be to get it all over with asquickly as possible.
"Ave Maria" from Giuseppe Verdi's "Four Sacred Pieces" was, alas, mauled beyond recognition. Intensely enigmatic like the scale on which it is based, this piece calls for seamlessly sustained lines and hushed, glowing harmonies. Where Saturday's loud,choppy, ungodly (literally and figuratively) version came from, I have no idea, but Verdi's intentions obviously had nothing to do with the end result.