A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 27: Christmas Past

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Eric Hill as Scrooge at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Production of "A Christmas Carol"

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a moralizing tale, strictly speaking. It’s one of those that’s mostly tough with the sweetmeats at the end. It’s a story you already know. It is such a good tale structurally that it has proved irresistible to tinkerers of all sorts. The layout works. It has a little bit of everything — ghosts, little children, Christmas stuff, a happy ending. It seems to me the great message of the story is not the happy result of generosity, but something much more private, the promise that there still is time. It is not too late for Scrooge. This is the center of it. Good productions say this clearly. Eric Hill, in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn, got this across clearly. This actor has a technique so finished it disappears. At one point wandering around his premises, he made a series of sub-verbal noises — moans, groans — you knew exactly what he meant.  He wasn’t a ferocious Scrooge; he just didn’t care – didn’t want to be bothered. This seemed right to me. He didn’t exaggerate his fear when Marley’s ghost appeared, nor did he overdo the high jinks at the end. I see this same economy in his directing, sometimes almost too much so, as in the recent Macbeth. But there is always a center line to what he does, and there is always cohesion. This was a real performance, not a holiday treat.

CR Productions at Cohoes Music Hall treated me to a different kind of telling. They had found a lively and enjoyable musical score for “A Christmas Carol”, and their performance was exuberant and disciplined. Even the children, especially the children, sang, danced, and acted like pros. I love sitting on the side in the balcony, just over the stage in this theatre. The realness of the place, the old unamplified sound of the room, the gentle old-fashioned light transport me. The performance was way-theatrical in the best sense of those words. Maybe my favorite moment was hearing the snow machine start up near the end – its gentle roar a part of the greasepaint of it all.

There was another gentle and sweet “Christmas Carol” which had a sad nostalgia to it. This was the one performed by NYSTI (New York State Theatre Institute). The performance was preceded and followed with plea for aid to keep this excellent institution operating, in the midst of a complete breakdown in Albany’s capital building. This organization has for many years provided professional theatre for school children during the school day. May it long continue. We don’t need government officials riding around in limousines. We need wide-eyed little boys and girls seeing “The Tempest” for the first time.

David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries” at Shakespeare and Co. was difficult for me. I’m no PC fanatic, but making fun of people with mental difficulties is just not theatrical. It’s like beating somebody on stage. It just doesn’t work as an artistic process. When these kinds of sardonic jokes are played, I lose my sense of the theatre entirely. Reality is what I don’t want to see. This caveat applies in no way to the performers. Peter Davenport did the solo show splendidly, with virtuosity and clarity. The direction by Tony Simotes was also exemplary, and by that I mean pretty much invisible. It sure looked like a mighty fine apartment though, for somebody who worked as a Macy’s elf. Let me say mine was a minority opinion, and the audience seemed to enjoy it all terrifically. I noticed though that many of the laughs started abruptly. Real laughter always has a small crescendo, a real beginning.

There were two first-rate concerts. On New Year’s Day in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, there was a crowd of musicians playing Bach who really could not be bettered, including Joseph Silverstein, the great concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for many years. He had the inimitable sweetness of tone I remember from my student days – a sound like no other violinist. These marvelous players made one await each new movement with, I would like to say joy, but it was more than that. It was some kind of sense of well-being. Great comedy made audible. It may seem strange to call the music of the man who wrote the Matthew Passion comic music, but that’s exactly what it is — divine comedy, celestial energy, happiness that cannot be denied or destroyed. I could easily have listened to this concert over again with greater pleasure than I had the first time.

Lionheart

Equally marvelous was the singing of Lionheart in the College of St. Rose’s new Massry Center for the Arts. The hall itself is warm and seems to have a good balance of clarity and resonance. I was sitting very close, as is my want, but there was nothing harsh or blunt about the sound, even in the first row. These gentlemen are great singers of polyphony. When I heard them I knew what the Sistine Chapel must have been like in the 15th and 16th centuries, its choir composed of the greatest singers and composers in the world. Lionheart is a group of virtuosos. They give a commanding performance of this music, not over-reverent, never approximate, rich — anything but bland. Most felicitous in their singing was a kind of communal breathing between phrases, especially in the chant sections of the program. The breathing was never rushed; it was a musical thing. It had a sound of its own. Phrases came out of the way the singers breathed. They didn’t breathe just to make a phrase; the phrase was the result of the breathing. And this they did together with magnificent familiarity. Their singing was strong. It had no early-music pallor about it. I heard the old Latin texts at rhetorical, sometimes hortatory, sometimes withering, sometimes comforting — each chant and motet spoke out. In other words, their singing was dramatic. It came off the words. It was dramatic like a great singer is dramatic, even though the singers were six.

This is what I want to do. I want to go back to where this music was composed, on a cold Christmas Eve night, sit with seven of the best singers in the world, sing an Ave Maria, an Ave Maris Stella, with the private and owned intensity of the enclosed chapel. Like a meditation, communal and expert. Yes, it is an elite music. Yes, most of the people were in front of the rude screen and came and went freely during the divine service. To New England sensibilities this is absurd. But like it or not there is an elitism to the deepest art. Expertise is required, knowledge is necessary. We were privileged to hear this rare art sung by expert and communal artists. We sat there in a warm space and loved it.

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