Death More Lively Than Vierne’s Messe Solennelle

It’s one of those times of the year when concerts come one after another. A couple of nights ago we attended the Holiday Concert of the Claremont Concert and Chamber Choir’s. These are the vocal ensembles of Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Ptizer and Scripps Colleges plus a few ringers. Generally, this is a grand affair. And that would have been true this time if one only took into account the first half of the program. Frankly, most of the second half of the program was a downer.
Over the years, this concert has featured a mixture of Christmas and seasonal specific traditional music. The first half of the program very much met our expectations from Philips’ O Beatum et Sancrosanctum Diem to the traditional English carol A Merry Christmas. It was grand, uplifting and all around enjoyable. We even enjoyed the rather anomalous Reincarnations by Samuel Barber.
But the second half – what shall I say of the second half? First, I must say that it was extremely well preformed, technically excellent, and therefore deserving of much praise. For the second half of the program, conductor Charles Kamm, who usually has impeccable discretion in such manners, chose to perform Louis Vierne’s Messe Solennelle and Christmas it up a little by interspersing things like Paulene’s Hodie Christus natus est along the way. I can hardly think of a mass or any other piece of music that is more depressing than Vierne’s Messe Solennelle. “Solemn” hardly covers it. I am quite certain that many brave individuals have fallen into inconsolable despair at the sound of even his “Gloria.” The two concluding audience participation Christmas corals didn’t provide enough time to recover from Messe Solennelle. Vierne’s work is deservingly part of the repertoire but conductors should always place it beginning of a program so the audience has time to recover completely before they go unenlightened into the darkness.
The Pomona College Orchestra preformed last night’s concert – no bow to the holidays here, just great orchestral music well preformed. I think we enjoyed Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimmes” the most. Of these, I think “Dawn” was the best but all were great. The evening ended with Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss. When I saw this on the program, my first thought was, “Here we go again, nothing like a little death, with or without transfiguration, to enliven the remainder of the evening.” But despite a few oppressive motifs, the piece is generally optimistic even before one gets to the “Verklärung.” And so we left this concert on a high, a high enhanced by the wonderful solo work of the flute and the violin.
And so we are off this afternoon to a Sunday concert – the Pomona College choir this time. It looks like this concert will feature additional works by Benjamin Britten. He seems to be in vogue these days.