Since assuming the helm of the Chorus less than two years ago, Artistic Director Al Fischer, building upon the legacy of his predecessor Jeffrey Carter, has led the GMC to even higher levels of musicianship. The range and resonance of the ensemble have steadily improved, and the group has widened its scope and repertoire. The annual holiday concert, presented this year at Washington University’s 560 Music Center on December 14 and 15, never relied on glitter and visuals as a crutch, but gifted the community with a serious yet fun program founded on solid musical values.
Fischer brought his wide liturgical background to bear in the selections on the program, which ranged from the Renaissance counterpoint of Palestrina and the Baroque symmetry of Vivaldi to contemporary settings of traditional carols. And mingled in with the monuments culled from the classical repertoire were some fun (yet challenging) stylings from the likes of P.D.Q. Bach. But one of the greatest strengths of this program was the strong presence of Jewish music, set to both Hebrew and English texts.
Cantor Seth Warner from Temple Shaare Emeth, the featured soloist of the evening, sang with power and eloquence. His ability to shift from a doo-wop version of “I Have a Little Dreydl” to the noble text of “Sheyibone Beis Hamikdosh”, expressing the longing of the Jewish people for the rebuilding of the great temple, which has been denied them even though Israel has been re-established as a nation, testifies to the flexibility of his voice and technique.
In a particularly humorous show of hybrid unity, one of the closing selections on the program was a medley of carols sung not in their traditional keys, but in the modal minor style characteristic of Hebrew chant.
It was particularly fitting that this concert was presented at the 560 Music Center, since that building was home for many years to Temple Shaare Emeth. Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman detailed the history of the location in his welcoming remarks to the second half of the program. Christianity is the offspring of Judaism, but sadly has often brought suffering and persecution to its parent. The GMC made a significant step towards reconciliation, and did so in a particularly meaningful location.
Perhaps the most pleasing element of the performance was the improved blending of voices that was so readily apparent among the men of the GMC. The singers seem to have developed a re-invigorated sense of timing, phrasing and breathing. Although some of the upper vocal registers seemed a bit squeezed, pitches remained accurate, with a focused tone. Although we cannot say at this point that the Gateway Men’s Chorus is a “perfect” ensemble—none ever is—it can certainly be said that the ensemble has made great strides and will surely continue to do so.
Great singers must be supported by great instrumentalists, and much of the success of this program is due to the accompanying instrumental ensemble led by Principal Accompanist Martin Fox. Clarinetist Brian Edmiston added just the right spice, redolent of a klezmer band in an eastern European shtetl. Bassist Terry Kippenberger, percussionist Chris Treloar and flutist/flautist Sequoia Sprite rounded out the instrumental ensemble that provided immeasurable assistance. Al Fischer himself also assisted on keyboard, demonstrating yet another area where his broad experience has contributed to the quality of the Chorus.
From its first concert in 1988 with 22 singers, the Gateway Men’s Chorus has steadily grown in both size and esthetics. This concert marks yet another milestone in their development, perhaps even a new direction as a serious player in the arts pantheon of our community. The continued growth and improvement of the GMC is probably the greatest single compliment that can be paid to all the organization’s previous conductors, performers and administrators.