Holiday Concerts in Review: 6 shows that went on despite the pandemic

Corona, the angel of death, killed not only a third of a million Americans and many more worldwide, but also brought to an end most cultural events, especially concerts and theater shows. To my surprise and delight, instead of canceling their holiday concerts, some of the most beloved choruses and orchestras in the Philadelphia area became creative in entertaining audiences in safe and often unexpected ways via virtual performances. 

The reviews below, jointly published on Drama Around the Globe, present a history and short overview of the achievements of each musical group and my observations of their concerts.

Let’s hope that we can visit theaters and concert halls again next year. In that spirit: 

Have a Happy, creative, and Covid-free New Year. 

THE ORPHEUS CLUB: Oldest men’s singing club in the U.S.

The Orpheus Club is a men’s singing club based in Philadelphia, and is the oldest of its kind in the United States. It was founded in 1872, when 22 members performed at the Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street.

“The Orpheus club performs its Christmas, winter and spring concerts at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and at the Kimmel Center. Its Twelfth Night Revels performance is held at the Orpheus clubhouse on South Van Pelt Street each January. (Wikipedia)

The quality of the voices and the originality of the videos in Orpheus Club of Philadelphia Virtual Christmas Concert 2020—which juxtapose singers each wearing a mask with a photo of the same singer without a mask and the blend in of songs performed at the elegant Academy of Music in the past where thousands of people were singing along—created a joyful choral holiday experience. 

Composer Melissa Dunphy

MENDELSSOHN CHORUS: A new name, a new artistic director, and A Slice of Pie

Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, one of the most popular choruses with high standards, formerly known as the “Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia is a music institution in Philadelphia, [. . .] founded in 1874 by William Wallace Gilchrist, a major figure in the 19th-century music of Philadelphia. The chorus is currently under the direction of Dominick DiOrio (2020- ). It was previously directed by Paul Rardin from 2015-2020, chair of the department of choral conducting at Temple University. Prior to Rardin’s appointment, the chorus was led by Alan Harler from 1988–2015. (Wikipedia)

Melissa Dunphy is one of Australia’s greatest gifts for Philadelphia. She is composer of the Mendelssohn Chorus’s winter concert A Slice of Pie: Music by Melissa Dunphy, Poetry by Feminista Jones. Her Gonzales Cantata, the musical equivalent to The Investigation by Peter Weiss, based on the transcripts of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Dunphy took the entire transcript of the Gonzales hearings and turned them into an equally eye-opening trial on stage. 

She used strong Baroque elements for her music in the Gonzales Cantata, wrote many other pieces, quite a few in a more academic, abstract style, but for this Christmas concert, she used a mixture of American jazz and dream choirs, sung magnificently by the newly named Mendelssohn Chorus. My fear that I would hear atonal music that I usually only can stomach when performed by modern ballet dancers dissipated within seconds: This music made me want not only to eat more pies, but more importantly listen to sounds that made me feel at home, but also lyrics that made me think. 

Adding to the down-to-earthiness of this musical gem, this witty recording of her Slice of Pie, actually includes Dunphy herself preparing a pie, and her mother proudly taking it out of the oven, followed by other people who are eating various forms of baked goods. 

Given that way too many older folks have died of Covid-19 infections, I was moved when I saw an elderly couple eating a homemade pie, and clearly relishing the joint experience. I appreciated the fact that Dunphy and her lyricists, together with the chorus, the musicians, and the videographers, managed to make me think without being confronted by an angry manifesto. Rather, Dunphy manages to let us experience the joy of the holidays, but also gifts us with the awareness of what can happen to large numbers of people if we allow ignorance, greed, and exploitation to rule a country.

It was the first time that I saw the brilliant new conductor, Dominick DiOrio, wearing a festive red jacket, conducting over 70 singers, and the three musicians—Eric Schweingruber on the trumpet, Nathan Pence on bass, and Travis Goffredo on drums—leading to one of the most joyful holiday choral experiences. 

Legs up with a Holiday Can-Can: The PGMC conductor merrily joins the toy soldiers. Still from PGMC holiday concert.

PHILADELPHIA GAY MEN’S CHORUS: A cultural fixture in the city of brotherly love

This year’s Christmas concert by the popular Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus, founded in 1981, presents an upbeat, one-hour free virtual program: Home With Bells On—A virtual holiday concert. Joseph J. Buches, the artistic director, expresses the hope that next year the crisis might be over. He then starts conducting a wide range of songs, accompanied by Baker Purdon. As always, ASL interpreter Brian Morrison gives us a chance to experience music in new ways 

What makes this program unique is not just the music and the joy the PGMC singers bring to the audience, but the mixture of highlights from previous holiday concerts with new Zoom recordings. We see close ups of all the participants singing beautifully in their own homes, identified by their first name, and with the lyrics being projected onto the screen. I also liked the rendition of Ma’oz Tzur, the Hanukkah song, presented by one member in Hebrew with great dignity.

When two singers sang “Grown-up Christmas List,” supported by the chorus, I was pretty moved, aware of the violence that surrounds us, and yet hope living on: “Do you remember me?/I sat upon your knee

I wrote to you/With childhood fantasies.// [. . .] My grown-up Christmas list/Not for myself/But for a world in need.//No more lives torn apart/That wars would never start/And time would heal all hearts.//And everyone would have a friend/And right would always win/And love would never end.//”

Of all the many Christmas concerts I have seen, I never witnessed a conductor, dressed in his black tails, joining eight guardsmen, dressed in red uniforms, jointly performing “Favorite One” with some pretty complex choreographed movements by Sean Toczydlowski with their hands and arms, even their legs and feet moving rapidly in unison—a feat that brought down the house. 

For the record, this concert may be the only one where the producers gave themselves permission to earn some urgently needed funds by including commercials by a vodka company. Purists may not like it, but a chorus must survive, not only artistically but also financially, given the many expenses. 

Everyone gets protected at the Philly POPS recordings, including the conductor. Photo by Jessica Griffin.

THE PHILLY POPS: The Official Pops orchestra of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

The Philly POPS is an orchestra based in Philadelphia, PA. Founded by presenter and producer, Moe Septee, and conducted for 35 years by two-time Grammy Award-winning pianist Peter Nero, who, with the Philly POPS played orchestral versions of popular jazz, swing, Broadway songs and blues. In 1999, the Philly Pops was designated the official pops orchestra of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Wikipedia)

Of all the groups that I saw perform this season, the beloved Philly POPS conducted by David Charles Abell, made sure that the violinists, all wearing masks, sitting in the middle of the stage, were protected by large Plexiglas walls from their colleagues who played wind instruments (“Blasinstrumente” in German = blowing instruments)—a realistic reminder that how musicians, including singers, are almost as endangered as medical staff at hospitals. 

The care that went into A Philly POPS Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season confirmed again the professionalism of the Philly POPS, including the protection of their guest singer, Broadway’s Mandy Gonzalez, and the members of the orchestra, who not only looked classy with their black tuxedos and cheerful bow ties and/or elegant long black dresses. The chorus took the deadly Covid threat seriously, so much so, that when the orchestra played, accompanied by the large POPS Festival Chorus, and with the conductor inviting us to sing along traditional carols, I almost went ashen when I saw their production of the most famous of all Christmas songs, Austria’s “Stille Nacht”—“Silent Night”:

Nothing hit me as hard about the seriousness of life as their version of the holiest of Christmas songs when nothing appeared on the screen but a flickering candle, before we saw the happy-looking singers cheering us up with their carols, but within seconds the colors of their faces and outfits faded into stark black and white images. I became brutally aware of the fact that these dark figures reminded me of the people of all ages who had already gone from this life and that this version confirmed the reality of the brevity of all our lives—but this concert also invited us to make every moment count. 

We wouldn’t be in America if it weren’t for the next song wishing all of us a “Merry Christmas” with the conductor suddenly showing up from behind a window, wearing reindeer antlers and singing like an overenthusiastic reindeer, which made me laugh and forget the sadness I experienced with the eye-opening black and white scene. 

The concert included a guest performance by Seattle’s pianist Charlie Albright; an unusual jazz version of “Amazing Grace” played on the trumpet by the Philly POPS artistic director of jazz, Terell Stafford; and continued with many more songs and a special performance by the Gospel Choir of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (founded in 1792), directed by Walter Blocker, who sang “Hark! The Herald, Christ is Born,” with great enthusiasm with the women dressed in African dresses and headgear, more colorful and exuberant than anything the elite in Britain wears at the annual Ascot Racecourse

The concert ends with a jubilant performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah,” presented by the Philly POPS Festival Chorus, the St. Thomas Gospel Choir, and the Philadelphia Boys Choir. To my amazement, the director took the risk of conducting the orchestra live while the recorded video of all the performers—put together with great care by Austin Berner, the sound editor, and spliced together with split-second accuracy by videographer Jeffrey Masino—was running in sync with the Philly POPS. 

What a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s concert, filled to brim with surprises, both funny and serious. 

Philadelphia Boys Choir members, recording all songs at home, Christmas 2020. Photo by CBS3.

PHILADELPHIA BOYS CHOIR & CHORALE: “America’s Ambassadors of Song” 

Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale is a boys’ choir and men’s chorale based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1961 by Dr. Carlton Jones Lake, currently under the direction of Jeffrey R. Smith. They are known as “America’s Ambassadors of Song” and are considered to be one of the best boys choirs in the world. They have performed in concert venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, the Kimmel Center, Notre Dame de Paris, King’s College Cathedral, and Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. 

Riccardo Muti hailed the boys as a “gem” at the performance of the concert version of Puccini‘s Tosca with internationally acclaimed soloists. [. . .] During the 1990s, the Choir added Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem to its repertoire under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch. [. . .] Each year, the Pennsylvania Ballet hosts the Choir as part of their seasonal favorite, The Nutcracker. Internationally, the Choir singers have performed for the Royal Families of Sweden, Denmark, England, Thailand and in over 30 countries around the world. [. . .] They have also sung at the White House for four presidents. (Wikipedia)

Jeffrey R. Smith, the conductor of Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale Winter Concert 2020: describes in detail how he and a team of experts manage to get over 100 boys to sing at home without being able to hear anyone other than a recorded music track and seeing their artistic director conduct a virtual, non-visible chorus—before, after many days of splicing everything together we get this chorus sing in harmony. I have never seen anyone who explained this process so well that I understood the complexity of this time-consuming task. Alas, the overabundance of Christian graphics tends to distract from the overall high quality of this program. 

However, seeing little boys reciting passages from the Christmas story in between musical numbers with great joy, added to the video. A Jewish boy, sitting next to a menorah, introduces “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Candles” in Ladino), a lively Sephardic Jewish Hanukkah and New Year’s song with the English translation of the original lyrics projected onto the screen—one of the best Hanukkah song renditions I have ever heard. The scene of a little black boy in front of a tree in his neighborhood enthusiastically talking about Christmas made me think of a 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. in his neighborhood in Atlanta reaching out to the world in 1939—the outbreak of World War II—with a message of hope. 

“When you believe” from The Prince of Egypt brings together both the Philadelphia Boys Choir and the Philadelphia Girls Choir—a joyful ending with over 300 voices. 

Philadelphia Girls Choir Christmas concert 2020 where the girls sang in the open with at least a 6 ft distance.

PHILADELPHIA GIRLS CHOIR: “A legend in the making”—with a surprise ending

Established in 2012, the Philadelphia Girls Choir provides an unequaled experience for girls 7 and older, taking a holistic approach to choral music that relates musicianship and performance to the broader human experience designed to instill confidence, responsibility and achievement through music. 

Cultural diversity and personal development are essential elements of our program. Ensembles of the Choir are invited to sing at public performances at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker and the National Constitution Center. The Concerto ensemble also travels and performs internationally for a yearly summer tour. (Philadelphia Girls Choir website)

For the virtual Philadelphia Girls Choir Holiday Concert 2020, the choir also invited the American Boychoir from Princeton, NJ, the Princeton Girls Choir, and sang one piece with the Philadelphia Boys Choir. I particularly appreciated the graphics which showed beautiful scenes in nature in between numbers to which religious and non-religious people can relate, and I valued the international Christmas and New Year’s songs in Hebrew and Icelandic in their holiday repertoire. 

This concert comes to a joyful close with all the girls slowly walking through a field next to a barn, all keeping a distance of more than six feet from each other, slowly moving forward, singing, each picking up a gift box—except a very young little girl with braids, who walks around unable to find her gift. The Philadelphia Girls Choir concert ends with a charming surprise. 

This is how we’ll sing next year, Mendelssohn Chorus, 2020-2021
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