A Joyous Sound

Effervescent, nostalgic, fresh and full of light, A Joyous Sound from Resonance Works | Pittsburgh is all that a delightful holiday gift should be. The company honors chorale traditions and stellar musicianship for this celebratory season midway through its sixth year and urges audiences to ignore commercial din and tired popular music that can deafen us to the spirit of the season. Instead, soak up A Joyous Sound.

Under the passionate baton of Maria Sensi Sellner, artistic director, and founder, A Joyous Sound pays tribute to the leadership of the late Robert Page, conductor extraordinaire.  Like that holiday dinner curated to please each particular family member, this program delights with choices from classical and popular repertoire spanning four centuries. There’s enough that’s familiar and plenty that’s musically fascinating and captivating.

The featured artists are the 19 instrumentalists of the Resonance Chamber Orchestra, the Festival Chorus of 22 voices, and two favorites from opera and concert events in the region, soprano Lara Lynn McGill and baritone Daniel Teadt. Having performed in the company’s debut at the South Hill’s Westminster Presbyterian Church on Friday, they are heard again Sunday at 3 pm in Shadyside’s Third Presbyterian Church.

Maestra Sensi Sellner was a student of Dr. Page at Carnegie Mellon University and was his assistant conductor for the Mendelssohn Choir. She also worked acting director upon his retirement. Once more, she aptly collects outstanding and diverse pieces into one program. Other longtime choristers, like this writer, genuinely appreciate this line-up. From the very seasonal foundation of selections from Handel’s Messiah and beloved carols to the engaging selections by some 20th-century composers, the program is substantial and challenging, while spiced with popular holiday favorites.

McGill opens the concert title work, A Joyous Sound, a 1990 Page composition that relishes beloved images and traditions. Orchestration by K. Pukinskis employs all the players and voices to conjure both the contagious joy of Page and the season.

Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto for 4 Violins in B Minor, Op. 3 No. 10 RV 580”, places the virtues of the lead orchestra instrument joyously forward throughout three movements. Vivaldi’s intricate layering and echoes of melody are woven masterfully throughout. Violinists Sandro Leal-Santiesteban (concertmaster), Dawn Posey, Anne Moskal, and Ashley Freeburn perform with thoughtful virtuosity and collaboration in front of the orchestra.

A most beautiful piece this writer has never heard, British composer Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Op. 39, evokes the desire for peace around Europe between two world wars. In this call for “peace on earth,” Finzi weaves his gorgeous melodic lines with the introspective poetry of Robert Bridges “Noël: Christmas Eve 1913” and the traditional Christmas story of Luke and The Book of Common Prayer. The poem evokes the British Poet Laureate’s experience in his English countryside as informed by the recent “Great War” on “a frosty Christmas Eve” as he recalls the story of Christ’s birth.

The outstanding Daniel Teadt, who sings the poet’s story, is also a talented actor. Teadt shares the writer’s experience both in his warm musically interpretation and dramatic expression. As the angel, McGill admonishes “Fear not…” as  the choir delivers “…and on earth peace.”

Finzi is well paired with Handel here. Superbly played and sung excerpts at the heart of George Frideric Handel’s familiar masterwork Messiah may indeed whet your appetite for more. The choruses “And the Glory of the Lord” and “Lift Up Your Heads” are impeccably sung by the choir with the orchestra and BJ Miller at the signature continuo. The orchestra is perfection with “Pifa,” the beautiful instrumental transition that takes Messiah audiences from prophecy to hope fulfilled. McGill is featured on the soprano’s “There were shepherds” that sets up the choir’s glorious “Glory to God.” Often heard in recent Handel operas, McGill is a stellar soprano and always a joy to listen to as she expands her Baroque repertoire.

Sensi Sellner includes Hebrew songs arranged by Page–one for Hanukkah and one evoking the Jewish New Year. She shares that, as a resident of Squirrel Hill, she feels “Bashana Haba’a” appropriate as a universal message of hope and renewal following the October tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue. “Ki Mi Tziyon” is a powerful chorale summons to the power of scripture (the Torah) in faith.

The only living composer on the program, Adolphus Hailstork provides an indeed resonant and timely work, “A Carol for All Children” in a heartfelt acapella performance by the choir. Even the title conjured our concern for the children of this world before The conductor shared an emotional introduction to a work that might be heard for the first time by many: “We offer this as a hopeful prayer for all the children of the world.”

“Hodie Christus Natus Est” by Renaissance master Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, a polyphonic confection sung by the choir a cappella in five parts, delivers that appropriate dose of Latin text in this context. What would serious choir experiences be without that?

Pleasing and lush orchestral arrangements by Morton Gould for even familiar carols like the orchestral “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or the stunning Arthur Harris instrumental version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are irresistible. Harris’ gorgeous version of the choir for “Silent Night” honors a 200-year-old song that stands as a timeless story and melody that features an aptly angelic harp by Nuiko Wadden. Arrangements like these anticipate the listener’s desire for music that deep in our memories while being invited to exploring the musical possibilities.

Page arrangements of favorites “Up on the Housetop,” “The Christmas Song,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” are unusually personal in a such an intimate setting. The audience can also enjoy seeing the string players’ bowing and the percussionist’s intense concentration awaiting cues. Jennie Dorris plays everything from woodblock to timpani here. You won’t regret sitting near the cymbals, I promise. And those trumpets Jay Villela and Sam Eisenhandler were also triumphant.

Page’s signature treatment of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” sends the audience away on a bright note, pulling out all the orchestra and choral stops. Dr. Page is certainly smiling down on Resonance Works.

Catch the final performance of A Joyous Sound on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 3 pm at Third Presbyterian Church, 5701 Fifth Avenue at Negley in Shadyside (15232). The venue decor is oak-laden and has wonderful acoustics for such music events. Tickets and details are on the Resonance Works website

Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh  LinkedIn

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