Under the skilled baton of music director David Hayes, the venerable, 180-voice New York Choral Society offers a Christmas program venturing well beyond your standard Messiah, the perennial Handel masterpiece that was actually written for and textually addresses Easter. On Tuesday 18 at Carnegie Hall, the society presents two musically contrasting pieces that explore the season’s mysteries and meanings.
Pulitzer Prize–winning Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon introduced O magnum mysterium in 2002. Scored for mixed chorus, two flutes, chimes and two tuned crystal glasses, it’s set in both English and Latin. Both Higdon’s work and the concert’s main offering, Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ (1854), blend archaizing forms and gestures with a contemporary sensibility.
One of the great sacred works by a nonbeliever, Berlioz’s sublime oratorio presents the story of Christ’s birth—including Herod’s paranoid dream, the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and its rescue by (pointedly) a kind “infidel” Egyptian family—with almost cinematic vividness, contrasting forward-looking realistic human dialogue with angelic choral music inspired by French medieval harmonies. The key role of the narrator demands a lyric tenor with elegant line, crystalline diction and a ductile, beautiful tone. William Burden, wonderful in French repertoire, should fill the bill with distinction and confident style. He joins three other fine Metropolitan Opera soloists: rich-toned mezzo Heather Johnson, heroic bass-baritone Alan Held and characterful bass Richard Bernstein. English titles will be projected for both works.—David Shengold
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