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Hallelujah! Project 2 December 2014

SB NewsPress Review: A Seasonal Sampler Box Santa Barbara Choral Society’s second annual ‘Hallelujah! Project’ deftly mixes light and serious fare at the Lobero

By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 11.53.28 AM December 19, 2014 11:17 AM Handel was in the house. So was Santa Claus. Welcome back to the Santa Barbara Choral Society’s second annual holiday show, “The Hallelujah! Project,” which earned its exclamatory status at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday night (repeated on Sunday afternoon), a freewheeling and easily digested mixture of serious and lighter Christmas music fare. Handel was represented, if in a nugget-sized “greatest hit” form, by the famed “Hallelujah” chorus from his great “Messiah” oratorio — which gives this family-friendly program its name. Said Santa, in full beard and costume, supplied a hearty shout-out from the back of the hall at the end of a music-narration presentation of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” bellowing “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” To cop a quip, Saturday’s show was, like last year’s show, a good night, even if short on concentrated classical musical substance. Choral music aficionados in town may be suffering from the syndrome of “missing the ‘Messiah,’ ” which seems like a necessary component of any city’s classical music life this time of year. The Choral Society, a formidable group with roots going back to 1948, performed half of the oratorio two years ago, before opting for this cozier, broad-audience holiday show model. That quibble aside, the new program fulfills the admirable function of mixing up more sophisticated musical manners and work with fun and fizzier moments, stirring in a dollop of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Leroy Anderson’s jingly, jangly “Sleighride” with weightier musical stuff. This mixed bag approach is a great way to introduce younger and less classical-inclined ears to deeper musical matters. From the classical front, notably, the choral group plus orchestra, boldly led by longtime director JoAnne Wasserman, called on Bach’s “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” early in the program, ending the more serious-minded first half with contemporary English composer John Rutter’s “Gloria.” Rutter’s often Copland-esque charmer reaches its deepest moment in the slower, more impressionistic middle section, “Domine Deus,” with its mystical suspended harmonies (here, featuring singers Tara Eisenshauer, Christine Hollinger and Kristin Aylesworth). One highlight of the evening, Stephen Paulus’ inventive rethinking arrangement of “The Holly and the Ivy,” had resonances in the larger choral music world: the Minnesotan Mr. Paulus, a respected but still underrated American composer with a special skill in the choral area, passed away last year. In another inspiring portion of the evening, the Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus joined the mature choral ensemble for a three-pack of not-necessarily-expected Christmas pieces — “Caroling, Caroling,” “How Far is it to Bethlehem” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The vocalizing population in the house expanded exponentially after intermission, when Ms. Wasserman kicked into the show’s namesake “Hallelujah” chorus. Some were frightened by the work’s lack of mention in the printed program, but there it was, in truncated, singalong-fashioned glory. Things got interesting, in the mostly frothier second half, with William Matthias’ “Wassail Carol,” a tart and saucy vehicle for this fine choral group, extending the cheer in a way similar to Mr. Paulus’ piece. Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 11.49.37 AM Bringing it all back home, we were treated to Clement Moore’s classic “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” set to a snuggling orchestral score by Philip Lane. In a literal reading role, played last year by Fannie Flagg, the spotlight went to the fine actress Stephanie Zimbalist, who, a year ago, was part of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” the premiere production of Ensemble Theatre at the New Vic. By contrast, this role is a breeze, but warmly handled and warmly received. It wasn’t over until the sack-bearing fat man in red bellowed. As a yuletide cherry on top, the show ended with Randol Alan Bass’ “A Christmas Flourish,” a medley affair including “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and, circling back to the concert’s first half, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” In its second incarnation, the “Hallelujah! Project,” which started as a YouTube video project (and has logged 33,000 hits and counting), came on strong, and soft, in mostly all the right ways. A fuller “Messiah” can wait.