2013-14 Season
Saturday, April 5, 2014 (Jim Ruggirello, Long Beach Gazette)

MUSICAL NOTES: Chorale Earning New Found Popularity

You’ve come a long way baby, two.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra’s concerts were largely attended only by the immediate family. The other weekend at Grace First Presbyterian, one of the ensemble’s performances of Mendelssohn’s majestic “Elijah” was completely sold out and the other was pretty darn near.

The reason is simple: this group is good. Their concerts are consistently excellent, and in Eliza Rubenstein they have a conductor who not only demands excellence, but is musically top-notch and engagingly communicative to boot. Unlike the Camerata Singers, who always drew well but needed to grow artistically, Long Beach Chorale’s brand of superior music making just needed to find and develop its audience. They have. Comparisons are odious, counter-productive and inevitable. I’ll try not to make too many between the Camerata’s St. John Passion and Long Beach Chorale’s “Elijah” one week later. The glorious thing is that Long Beach is blessed to have two such fine choruses.

But it turns out that Mendelssohn was well acquainted with the St. John, and Elijah’s “It is enough” is modeled after the earlier work’s “Es ist vollbracht,” complete with cello obbligato. Both works feature an angry mob, vividly portrayed by both composers with often frightening intensity.

And Rubenstein, as Rob Istad had the previous weekend in the Camerata’s Bach, did a masterful job of heightening the drama that Mendelssohn so brilliantly crafted. I have sat through performances of “Elijah” that seemingly took forever; this one just buzzed along, with Rubenstein controlling the pace, shaping each phrase, whipping up a frenzy where called for, and relishing the moments of calm reflection.

The chorus was at its best, which is to say terrific. The opening “Help, Lord” raised goosebumps, and things proceeded nicely from there. The chorus is the star of this show, and the group rose to, and conquered, each successive challenge. They have proven in the past to be equal to many choral masterworks (Brahms Requiem, Haydn “Creation”, etc.); this “Elijah” may have featured their best work to date. Diction, sound, blend, balance: all exemplary.

My reservations about the soloists are largely a matter of taste. All were professional, but personally I can be unreservedly enthusiastic only about Harriet Fraser’s soprano, which gleamed and shone beautifully throughout. And thank goodness she was assigned the role of the Youth, where boy sopranos often come to grief.

I have been a fan of David Stoneman, a frequent soloist with the Chorale, in the past; here he began impressively, and sang the long role of Elijah with assurance. As the evening transpired, however, his tone understandably began to wear. I found Matthew Potterton’s sound too tight, and Deborah Winsor-Williams’ contralto unsteady. Others may disagree, but this is my column.

In any event, this has been a great month for choral music, and Long Beach Chorale is to be congratulated for coming up with another winner.

Monday, December 23, 2013 (Jim Ruggirello, Long Beach Gazette)

MUSICAL NOTES: Chorale Concert Christmas Tradition

Some things never change.

Grandma’s fruitcake. Tangled Christmas lights. And the Long Beach Chorale adding to the holiday season with another splendid concert, the other night at Grace First Presbyterian Church.

The Chorale’s sound is a marvel, beautiful, blended and balanced. And what sets their concerts apart, aside from technical accomplishment, is the distinct impression that everyone on stage is having the time of their lives, singing great music under the inspired leadership of their dynamo of an artistic director, the amazing Eliza Rubenstein.

Rubenstein’s gestures are a textbook example of what a conductor’s should be, conveying the inner energy of the music while communicating the beat with crystal clarity. And her spoken introductions are also a model; she’s enthusiastic without being gushy, knowledgeable without being patronizing, and irrepressibly engaging.

This concert was, as is typical, intelligently put together. Assisted by an excellent brass quintet and organist William Wells, the program featured Christmas favorites and a rarity or two, all in a swift-moving package that never lagged or failed to charm.

The big pieces were the Daniel Pinkham Christmas Cantata and a couple of motets by Giovanni Gabrieli, pieces that Eliza performed on her first concert with the Chorale, an astonishing 10 years ago. The acoustics at Grace First don’t exactly rival St. Mark’s in Venice, where the Gabrieli was premiered, but chorus, brass and organ combined nevertheless to produce a festive, joyous sound.

Holiday favorites included Holst’s sturdy “Personent Hodie,” a quirky arrangement of “Ding, Dong, Merrily On High,” and Gwyneth Walker’s “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” which managed to be both traditional and non-gender specific. The brass contributed a couple of happily chosen medleys, from a set arranged by John Iveson called “Christmas Crackers.” And you could listen to Wells playing “Fantasy on Greensleeves” and imagine you were hearing “What Child is This?” Rarities included a beautifully atmospheric piece, “Ecce Puer” by Tarik O’Regan, who has seemingly supplanted Eric Whitacre as the one indispensable composer on contemporary choral programs. And I was not familiar with Ward Swingle’s setting of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” written for his eponymous Singers. The interpolations of snatches from traditional carols were a hoot.

The evening ended with David Willcocks’ classic arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” in which the audience was invited to sing along. All in all, this was one of the more enjoyable holiday concerts I’ve been to. Next time the Long Beach Chorale announces a concert, go. The program will be interesting and sound terrific. And, Eliza Rubenstein will be charming.

Friday, March 30, 2012 (Jim Ruggirello, Long Beach Gazette)
“Creation” Gives Chills

What a treat.

The stellar performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation” by the Long Beach Chorale & Chamber Orchestra the other day at Grace First Presbyterian Church was a feast for the ear. All acquitted themselves admirably, but the star of the show was old man Haydn himself.

There isn’t room here to list the many musical delights in this masterpiece. My personal favorites include the representation of Chaos at the beginning, which influenced the opening of many symphonic works to follow (including Beethoven’s Ninth), and the explosion at “Let there be Light,” which still produces chills 200 years after its premiere. The musical depiction of the various animals, from lion to worm, is just a hoot.

The hit tunes, the choruses “The heavens are telling” the marathon soprano aria “On mighty pens” and the tenor aria “In native worth” are hit tunes for a reason, and never fail to satisfy. But what makes this piece such a classic, in addition to its compositional mastery, is its irrepressible optimism and good cheer. How can you not love a work that’s so dang jolly?

A complete live performance, especially a great one, is relatively rare, but this was one. Artistic director Eliza Rubenstein had her 70-plus singers in top form for this one, and the choral numbers were pure joy. We’ve come to take somewhat for granted that the Chorale possesses an ideal blend, crisp articulation, clear and transparent lines and an awesome capacity for power, but on this occasion they added to those qualities the unmistakable impression that everyone was having a really good time.

The soloists were pretty close to ideal. Soprano Harriet Fraser’s voice is large, pretty and flexible. Robert MacNeil’s tenor rang out with authority, and, although everyone’s diction was excellent, his was superior. Baritone David Stoneman, familiar from previous Chorale performances, contributed an impressively sonorous presence. All three (and alto Lisa Pan in the finale) displayed impeccable intonation and a superbly stylish musicality.

The pick-up orchestra was a fine one, and they had a lot to do. A little scrappiness toward the beginning didn’t detract from the group’s overall distinguished performance. Southern California is home to the finest musicians in the world, and putting together the occasional orchestra that rivals the Long Beach Symphony in quality isn’t impossible.

Rubenstein also had a lot to do, and also had a really good time. Her command of the orchestral recitatives was especially impressive, and throughout the performance she chose judicious tempos and sensitively supported her soloists. The Camerata’s performance last week and this effort by the Chorale, both well-attended, further show that choral music is alive and well.

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