Choir gives first-rate concert

`Holocaust Cantata,' carols on Vocal Arts Society program

Review

December 07, 2007|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

The Arundel Vocal Arts Society marked the start of its 25th anniversary season with a sterling performance directed by conductor and music director JoAnn Kulesza, in her debut with the group.

The 44-member choir seemed to be more fully engaged in an innovative Cantiamo program -- Italian for "we sing."

The program opened on a warm note with the familiar "Let There Be Music" by Francis Williams, which displayed the chorus well. In her opening remarks, Kulesza encouraged anyone who might enjoy singing to join the chorus, describing the experience as "being part of a special community where there is a place for everyone."

The major work on the first half of the program was Donald McCullough's Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps, consisting of music written by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Poland. The 13 musical numbers are interspersed with readings from elements of the life of Irena Augustynska Kafka.

This powerful work ended with Michael Horvit's "Even When God is Silent," which commemorates the 50th anniversary of Kristall- nacht and is based on a poem found written on a basement wall in Cologne, Germany.

Soloists David Hancock, Sherri Swanson and Karen Baumbach delivered nuanced performances that heightened the drama. Pei Lu's mournful cello seemed to sing from the soul, and pianist Theresa Wolf lent fervor and substance to several segments, especially the Tango.

Another praiseworthy aspect was Kulesza's choice of guest speakers Dr. Joseph Taler, a retired Annapolis physician and native Pole who survived the Holocaust, and Thea Lindauer, a German native who was one of the 10,000 children rescued from the Holocaust by Kindertransport.

For the sake of full disclosure, Taler and his wife, Bronka, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland, are friends who have generously given me insight into their ordeals. His reminiscences about the tango music of his youth brought added meaning to this work, as did his reading of "Singing Saved My Life," richly colored by his Polish accent. It lent authenticity to such lines as "in 1940 we established a quartet that sang well-known and popular songs. ... Performance events were unforgettable experiences that had an extraordinary psychological effect on all of us because they helped us to overcome depression."

Lindauer, who recently documented her Kindertransport experience in There Must Be An Ocean Between Us, brought poignant authenticity to her reading of "Letter to Mom" that contained the lines "I miss you and I worry about you."

At the conclusion of this work, a profound silence acknowledged the power of Holocaust Cantata.

After intermission, the chorus began Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, a musically substantial work whose challenges were well met by the chorus. Inspired by an English text in the style of Chaucer, the text featured Latin phrases. The several soloists, each from the Vocal Artists ranks, and harpist David Ponder, greatly enhanced the performance.

A standout in the Alfred Burt carols was soloist Weldon Ward's shining "Some Children See Him." This four-segment selection was followed by two Irish Christmas carols by Frank Ferko that were beautifully sung and featured the gorgeous flute of Elena Yakovleva. The program ended with a lively "We Need a Little Christmas" from the show Mame.

This performance also established Kulesza's directorial skill at creating a courageous program. It became increasingly joyous while showcasing the considerable talents of the vocal artists.

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