Monday, January 10, 2011

A Quest for Meaning in Holiday Music

(And Finding It in The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles)

Review and Commentary by Rodney Punt

Reflecting on the holiday season just passed, I am impressed at how often Christmas music induces good feelings but rarely serious thoughts. This year, for social and economic reasons, good feelings were at a premium. The most comfortable of annual seasons seemed anything but that for far too many Americans. Three holiday programs in December brought home long-simmering discords in our traditions. I was struck, even more than in previous years, with cognitive dissonances between the beguiling melodies and harmonies of Christmas music and the incongruous words they wrap themselves around.

The first program was that most traditional of holiday offerings, G. F. Handel’s Messiah, a two-and-a-half hour E-ticket of musical genius and dramatic puzzlement, presented by a Los Angeles Master Chorale in fine form. I reviewed it earlier; what interests now is the work’s condensation of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gospel. You may remember the nice parts: promises of easy yokes, light burthens and peace on earth.

Part I of the libretto begins at a time of endless warfare, with angels announcing the birth of a Messiah who will purify society and govern with justice and wisdom. No sooner has the birth taken place than Part II finds the adult Messiah reviled by his people, weighed down by sorrows, and executed without so much as a fare-thee-well. Part III, authored mostly by the Apostle Paul who never knew Jesus of Nazareth, sidesteps the Angelic promise of peace on earth and instead gives the faithful an IOU for a heavenly reward. What angels proclaim, men who establish religions can apparently take away. So much for Messiah as coherent message.

The next production was Amahl and the Night Visitors by Intimate Opera of Pasadena, also reviewed earlier. In that opera, three ostentatiously decked out Magi (aka Wise Men), seeking overnight housing, visit the lame boy Amahl and his mother at their humble home near Bethlehem. Composer-librettist Gian Carlo Menotti has the two and their impoverished neighbors providing the Magi food, shelter, and entertainment. It is fitting and proper, of course, that the poor should provide for the rich.

Not having been offered payment, Amahl’s mother is caught stealing some of the Magi’s gold. When she is told the gold is destined for the Holy Child, she readily gives it back for the savior-to-be. Amahl offers as gift his crutch. Immediately thereafter a supernatural force cures him of his infirmity. From this warm-hearted story, we take as example that the needs of the poor and sick are best addressed not by man but by heavenly intervention. Applied as policy today, we can forget healthcare coverage and those obnoxious death panels; the guy upstairs provides for those who have not.

I might have entered the month of January spitting Ebenezer Scrooge's humbugs were it not for the annual holiday matinee concert of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) on December 19. Instead of squishy religious bromides, I found light-hearted singing and a lot of self-deprecating humor, but also some surprisingly profound moments that renewed my faith in the ability of American society - however fitfully and imperfectly - to advance and do right by its people, even if through the serpentine means of our sclerotic political system.

Take the case of gays and lesbians, who encountered horrendous issues last year. Many Americans, proclaiming themselves true Christians and citing scripture, rejected the gay community as undeserving of the equal rights of other citizens. Intransigent adult attitudes were often mimicked by children on schoolyards, leading to the taunting of young gays and lesbians and an unprecedented rise in their suicides.

The Gay Men’s Chorus had not spent the year waiting for heavenly interventions to confront this issue. In October they produced an anti-bullying video message on YouTube using Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” anthem for the It Gets Better project. Targeting at-risk youth, it immediately became one of the most popular on-line entries of that effort.

Two months later, raining cats and dogs, Glendale’s Alex Theatre filled to capacity on a Sunday afternoon for a program titled COMFORT & JOY and presented by the same Gay Men's Chorus. Self-pity strictly forbidden even in this difficult era, the Chorus lit into the holiday extravaganza with seemingly no higher an aspiration than to celebrate a Festivus-like Yuletide - hardly a set-up for the deeply moving experience that was to follow.

There had been a special and unintended context to the light-hearted program; just the day before, the United States Congress finally repealed the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that had prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military in defense of their country. That Congressional action would resonate in the program.

Outgoing GMCLA Executive Director Hywel Sims recognized the importance of a day to be celebrated with special intensity. He asked all military service members and veterans in the predominantly gay and lesbian audience to stand. As a military veteran and the father of another veteran who served recently, I stood in the company of those gay and lesbian veterans who, perhaps at this very moment, could finally and properly reveal themselves and receive their justified appreciation. I am not ashamed to admit of flooding with tears at the honor.

Guest conductor Tim Seelig and his 150 or so choristers, decked out in holiday costumes and colors, set the pace with some of the best arrangements of holiday music’s usual suspects I have encountered. Numbers like “Sleigh Ride”, “A Christmas Carol”, “Mary Sat A-Rockin’”, and an especially ethereal “Silver Bells” arrangement highlighted the group’s phenomenal articulation and blend. Mark Chung choreographed the singers throughout in graceful Busby Berkeley-esque hand and body movements.

Encoring previous appearances, the acrobatic Jingle Elves offered a jungle gym of rolls, leaps, and folds in “Mr. Santa”, “Elves’ Broadway Christmas” and the hilarious “Boogie Woogie Hanukkah”, as cleverly choreographed by Billy Rugh. The Foamettes puppeteers did their magic in Phil Hettema’s black-lit, Disneyesque dream world, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Punctuating the program were occasional spiritual numbers such as Anton Bruckner's soulful “Ave Maria”, a medley of three pieces on the theme of “Joy”, and the concluding candle-lit interweaving of “Peace, Peace, Peace” and “Silent Night.”

Country singer LeAnn Rimes, who has so successfully inherited the Patsy Cline/Brenda Lee tradition, was the special guest artist, appearing in the first half of the program in two numbers, Mariah Carey’s “All I want For Christmas Is You” and the super-peppy “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Her sexy Santa dress in the first half of the program added special electricity to the bubbly renditions. Rimes' deep voice is gorgeous and her natural manner and delivery, not to mention her stunning musicianship, were special joys in the afternoon.

If you check out references to recent Rimes comings and goings on the internet, you will see occasional snarky remarks about her appearing in scanty clothes like bikinis and even this particular Santa suit. (Horrors! A good-looking woman in a bikini. What is this country coming to?) Pay no attention to the pedantic moralists. This woman has soul, and you will soon find out why.

For at least one attendee, the matinee's most touching moment came near the end of the program with Rimes returning in evening dress to sing Bette Midler’s “The Rose” in tandem with the Chorus’ rendition of the old chorale “Lo How A Rose E’re Blooming.” Rimes choked up as she dedicated the song to the young gays and lesbians who had lost their lives that year. She brought and left on stage a single long-stemmed red rose. I will close this commentary with a video of the afternoon’s performance, in profound gratitude for an ensemble and a special singing artist who brought more meaning to the season with this predominantly secular performance than any religious-themed program I was to attend.



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Above photos courtesy of The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net

1 comment:

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