Hallelujah Project 4 Dec 2016 SB Newspress


CONCERT REVIEW: Taking holiday music seriously, and lightly
The Santa Barbara Choral Society continued its grand, effective concept of mixing serious Christmas music with lighter fare, with ‘The Hallelujah! Project 4’
December 18, 2016 8:02 AM

The Santa Barbara Choral Society, led be JoAnne Wasserman and joined by members of the Santa Barbara Symphony, performed its fourth annual “Hallelujah! Project” at the Lobero Theatre last weekend.

Actress Shirley Jones made a cameo appearance at the Choral Society’s “Hallelujah! Project 4” to read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with musical and vocal accompaniment.

And then there were four, leaning towards the perhaps tradition-cementing milestone of the fifth annual affair, next year. Last weekend at the Lobero Theatre, with the rousing performance of “The Hallelujah! Project 4” (exclamation point rightfully theirs), the Santa Barbara Choral Society happily basked in the comfort of knowing that the friendly entity they created back in 2012 has grown into a handsome, multi-talented beast, one we’re happy to invite back into our busy holiday calendar.

In the beginning, the premise of a serious-meets-light-hearted Christmas season concert was fairly simple, though maybe a bit controversial to some choral music purists. The group, long directed by JoAnne Wasserman, proposes an elegant and effective solution to the quandary of whether to get serious — focusing on Handel’s “Messiah” and other Christmas-themed repertoire — or populist and carol-sweetened when it comes to Christmas programming, especially for a fine and serious choral group (whose last public performance, for example, played a role in the Santa Barbara Symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, in October).

The solution: they made sure to feature choral music gravitas — challenging new work and at least a teasing token, namesake snippet of the famed “Hallelujah” chorus from “Messiah” — while carving out a place for frothier yuletide carols. There were even visitations by Santa Claus himself, and a celebrity cameo. The celebrity in question — this year, actress, singer and cherished TV mom Shirley Jones — reads “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” from a ceremonial rocking chair, to children (in the role of attentive grandchildren) in pajamas, while Santa twinkles and scampers onstage and then gets busy placing presents by the Lobero Christmas tree.

Filling a Lobero stage liberally lined with ripe red poinsettias, the choral group, abetted by a solid orchestra for the occasion, opened with a new orchestral piece by Stephen Dombek, “Fanfare de Noel,” and moved into the balanced program, featuring, among other things, three pieces by gifted choral composer Randol Bass (“Glory to God,” “Gloria” and, nodding to the carol-tending subplot here, a finale of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”).

At the Lobero this year, the “Project” program felt like the strongest and the most cohesive one yet, which may be partly a function of our having grown accustomed to its programmatic face. Knowing how the concept works, it felt good and right to hear movements from Bach’s profound Cantata 191 (a personal highlight of the program) along with Leroy Anderson’s beloved winter wonderland-y bauble, “Sleigh Ride.”

There was no culture shock moving from a haunting version of the old Advent carol “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” arranger Julian Wachner’s re-harmonizing, semi-minimalist orchestral setting, along with a sing-along “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and the children’s chorus-enhanced “I Saw Three Ships.” Another of the surprisingly moving moments in the program’s musical journey was Ola Gjeilo’s dreamy read on “Away in a Manger,” re-contextualizing the melody sung by the children’s chorus while the adult choir’s humming part imposed minor modes and suspended harmonies all around the central theme, inviting an air of mystery and implicit questioning.

Appealing to both family-friendly demographic and discerning choral music aficionados, there is something for the proverbial everyone in the “Hallelujah! Project.” From another positive angle, the strategy engages prospects of luring young and classical neophyte ears to more deeply musical choral sounds, a phenomenon also attached to annual performances of the “Nutcracker.”

All parties involved, and both in the house and onstage, could appreciate the wit and musical wisdom of the show-stealing discovery of the concert, Jeff Tyzik’s music nerd-y marvel “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas.” Updating the classic carol, Mr. Tyzik showcases 12 different instrumental factions within the orchestra, setting up ops for the orchestra to detour into a pantheon of various points in music history. Educational culture rarely goes down so sweetly, like a Christmas tart with protein cleverly infused into the mix.