Los Angeles Music Review: CELEBRATE THE SEASON (Metropolitan Master Chorale)

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by Tony Frankel on December 23, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

A CELEBRATION WITHOUT THE SEASONING

A few years ago, Metropolitan Master Chorale’s Christmas concert bowled me over. The fairly young chorus under the Artistic Direction of Glenn Carlos looked poised to be the next great competitor in a crowded Los Angeles market. The unique selections and strong singers with a beautifully braided blend had me visit two subsequent concerts; while there were some shakier aspects than in the holiday show, I still felt this was the chorus to watch.

Sadly, MMC offered a wobbly Celebrate the Season last week, in which 15 holiday selections highlighted why the chorus is lacking in leadership but still capable of greatness. This was the kind of program one would expect at a high school with great singers, but not an outfit committed to promoting artistic excellence and creativity. This concert could easily have been a blip on MMC’s radar screen, so we can forgive the mistakes. While not a train wreck by any stretch of the imagination, dubious selections, unfit soloists, under-rehearsed singers and poor sound balance brought down the successful elements.

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The resplendent interpretation of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Ave Maria” showed off MMC at its best. This late Renaissance piece requires a delicate blend, luscious sonority, lovely balance and impeccable phrasing—and this is the chorale to do it. Ryan O’Connell’s rhythmic arrangement of “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” which opened the evening, showed off the enthusiasm and spiritedness that is so attractive about the chorale.

The mellifluous and powerful voice of bass Douglas McDonald filled the church at the start of “Mi Zeh Y’Maleil,” the Moroccan Jewish folk song arranged by Joshua Jacobson. But the soloists in “The First Nowell” were not as successful: While both were heartfelt renderings (another asset of MMC), Josh Bedlion sounded wispy, and soprano Sara Mann scooped to her notes á la American Idol.

A diverse choice of material has always been an attractive element of Metropolitan Master Chorale. Mr. Carlos selected sacred and secular holiday pieces, some with beautiful and unusual arrangements that I had never heard before, such as Craig Courtney’s “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.” My concern is that the chorale was incapable of embodying the soul of pieces from different cultures: A jubilant Nigerian song of praise, “Ogo ni fun oluwa,” was stiffly presented, and a unique rap-tinged take on the traditional Welsh carol “Deck the Halls” had the singers so out of their element that the timing fell to pieces at the end (quizzically, a soloist stepped forward as if to help get the chorus back on track). Ultimately, there is nothing more mortifying than a non-gospel chorus trying to sound like the First Baptist Church choir.

The final piece, “Christmas Fantasy,” is Carlos’ arrangement for orchestra reduced for piano, but without those orchestrations, the piece was clearly unexciting to the singers. Bluntly, it was boring and too long.

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One of my biggest gripes was the sound level of Erik Belsheim’s piano. When the chorale or a soloist sang a capella, the acoustics were perfect. Every time—and I mean every time—that the accomplished Mr. Belsheim played, it was far too loud. With the piano lid up and his foot heavy on the pedal, it felt like the chorus was accompanying him. And why was there such a paucity of a capella works? The Metrotones, a male octet made up of chorale members, are good enough to sing without piano. Their “Mele Kalikimaka” was diverting, but it was awfully slight (this was the number that almost had me lurching forward to silence the piano).

A serious stage management problem exists. This is important because if the context of the concert is weak, the voices will follow suit. The chorus’ movement is non-specific and their placement rarely changes, and the position of percussionists from the chorus during the African piece had them out-of-view from most of the audience. The joyous and athletic Mr. Carlos conducted from the center aisle, but instead of having a microphone nearby, he strode up to the soloists’ mic to do one of his rambling introductions (he never even introduced himself before speaking). After three concerts, I can say with certainty that it’s time for him to write his commentary before the concert, as his style of speaking (with plenty of “um’s”) is distracting.

Carlos’ introduction to Thompson & Herrick’s “The Best of Rooms” was especially repetitive, but above all, the execution of this beautiful arrangement elucidated how much potential lies within MMC and what needs attending: Many members gazed at their books the entire song; there were staggered entrances; power, diction and balance went from great to problematic in the wink of an eye; and personalities ranged from deer-in-the-headlights to notice-me-mom.

Perhaps the move to perform in the City of West Hollywood Council Chambers will address some of the sound and placement issues in MMC’s upcoming concerts. The reverb in the church is terrible for jazz, and the chorus rehearses elsewhere, so perhaps they were simply unprepared for this event. Which leaves me to wonder why their holiday concert in the same location two years ago was so great.

previous concert photo by Shari. B Ellis

Celebrate the Season
Metropolitan Master Chorale
Hollywood United Methodist Church
played December 15, 2013
for info on future concerts, visit www.metrosings.org

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