FIU School of Music’s Christmas concert offers a festive mix

By Lawrence Budmen

The Florida International University School of Music offered a festive holiday concert on Friday night at the Wertheim Concert Hall. The Christmas section of Handel’s Messiah shared the bill with some lovely¬†works for women’s voices by Gustav Holst and contemporary choral icon Eric Whitacre.

The FIU Women’s Choir under John Augenblick opened the program with the soaring lyrical strophes of Holst’s Ave Maria, ably accompanied by pianist Nuria Camino. Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs combine long melodic arcs with robust, toe-tapping folk rhythms. Meltingly beautiful timbres and a mellow violin accompaniment highlight this lovely score. The abundance of invention and surprising musical threads is ample evidence of Whitacre’s well earned popularity in choral circles. Augenblick’s strong soprano section had a field day with the high vocal lines and Paul Tulloch brought warmth of tone and intensity to the schmaltzy violin part.

The Nativity sequence, Part I of Messiah was impressively conducted by Grzegorz Nowak, FIU’s new artist-in-residence. Principal associate conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic and the well traveled former music director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Warsaw’s Polish National Opera, Nowak led a crisp, idiomatic performance. He managed to impart a fine semblance of Baroque style to his young student players, drawing cleanly articulated playing with spare vibrato from the string section of the FIU Symphony Orchestra. His reading of the Pastoral Symphony interlude was surprisingly slow and romantic, a throwback to an earlier era in the midst of a stylish performance. The players of the Amernet String Quartet took the first chair positions, adding depth and leadership to a robust orchestral effort.

The female contingent of Augenblick’s FIU Master Chorale was the fulcrum of the vocal performance. Male voices needed greater strength and sonority although the choir’s rhythmic precision and diction were impressive. Often the sheer joyous enthusiasm of the ensemble effort compensated for vocal imperfections.

The five choir members who sang the solo parts (Katherine Smith, Rebecca Longtemps, Lissette Jimenez, Scott Tripp and John Cabrali) exuded great sincerity and confidence in their valiant effort to cope with Handel’s formidable¬† vocal demands. At times the coloratura writing in the high and low registers was more than these young singers could handle at this point in their studies. The continuo accompaniment was imaginatively realized by Augenblick on harpsichord and Amernet cellist Jason Calloway, providing an enlivening commentary for the arias and recitatives.

Nowak appended the Hallelujah Chorus to the performance, drawing the most full throated choral singing of the evening with trumpets blazing forth resoundingly. Even in a less than ideal performance, Handel’s Messiah never fails to be a joyous, uplifting experience.

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Sat Dec 11, 2010
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