Review by Janet I. Martineau
October’s concert-conducting candidate for the Saginaw Choral Society directorship sang a little solo.
On Saturday afternoon, at the Temple Theatre in downtown Saginaw, the final candidate for the job composed a new Christmas ditty for the singers and arranged for a spiffy new arrangement of a Brian d’Arcy’s James' “Michigan Christmas.”
Gee, maybe we should just keep auditioning candidates since the ones in line are serving up fun extras galore.
Zebulon M. Highben, Saturday’s conductor candidate, was a stark contrast to October’s flashy, high-energy, comedic Glen Thomas Rideout. Highben was more laid back, toned-down, scholarly.
But, like Rideout, he delivered the goods in presenting a program that was refreshingly original (this one in a time of year which tends toward the overly traditional musical scores) and a chorale sounding superb.
So good luck, decision panel, because among the five candidates, there are these two guys and a couple of others all very worthy of the job.....and we have to chuckle that even the old MSU/Michigan rivalry comes into play here since Rideout is pursuing his doctorate at Michigan and Highben his doctorate at MSU!
Back to Saturday’s concert, titled “Christmas TIme Is Hear” (yes hear, not here. Pun intended).
“Welcome Yule,” Highben’s composition, opened the program and set its tone -- one of softer, more contemplative music on the whole and the unfamiliar. “Welcome Yule” is based on a 15th century carol text. It was sung a cappella and we hope it enters the Christmas songbook.
Yes there were three familiar John Rutter offerings and the famed “Do You Hear What in Hear” as well singalongs of the old tried and true. “African Noel,” a percussion driven piece, also is growing in stature and thus familiar.
But have most of us ever heard “Judea (A Virgin Unspotted),” “Sure on This Shining Night” (with a poem as its text), “This Christmastide” and “The Seven Joys of Christmas.” We’re betting not, and we loved the exploration of them all, and their performance by the singers.
Especially noteworthy was “The Seven Joys of Christmas” by the still-living Kirke Mechem. Those seven joys (and thus seven movements) are of love, bells. Mary, children, the new year, dance and song. And they incorporate traditional carols from England, France, Japan, Germany, Burgundy and Spain, all accompanied by an excellent 13-member chamber orchestra.
This, to me, was the highlight of the afternoon -- a musical treat to savor and explore and decide if the music captured the joy it was portraying.
Also a standout was the Daniel J. Singer arrangement of Brian d’Arcy James’ “Michigan Christmas.” We’ve loved this song since James himself introduced it, but in this new setting somehow the thoughts of a homesick hometown boy living in New York City seemed even more poignant. Thank you Mr. Singer -- and hey, Michigan, how about adopting this thing as the state song.
Another bell ringer was the Ah Tempo! rendering of “Mary Did You Know?” This sextet of men from the chorale just keeps getting better and better, and this rendition was an emotional grabber.
Sadly, when they combined with the six Valley Gals ensemble on “Merry Christmas, Darling,” well, it just needed more rehearsal time and acting skills to carry it off.
Bravo also to Carl Angelo and his Saginaw Youth Chorale, sounding much much improved and adding humor with the animal noises (via instruments) in the charming “Chrissimas Day.”
Highben divided his selections into themes: “A Time of Hope,” “A Time of Cheer,” “A Time of Joy” and “A Time of Peace.” Inventive. We liked it. Nice job.