Traditional, modern in harmony at Manchester concert

By Don Leypoldt
For the Journal Inquirer
December 1, 2005

MANCHESTER — The Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale (MSOC) has entered its 46th season. Its annual holiday concert has become a tradition within the Manchester community. With a history dating back nearly half a century, it is a challenge for the MSOC to keep its holiday music fresh.

On the other hand, the Christmas season is a time to bring out the old traditional carols and oratorios that are so dear to many. What is a music director to do?

This is a challenge that Chorale Director Kevin Mack has relished, and both traditionalists and modernists will be pleased at the MSOC’s December program. Its annual holiday concert will highlight both old and new Christmas music, each within the underlying theme of the Annunciation.

As described in Luke’s Gospel, the Annunciation occurs when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is pregnant with the Christ child. Mary’s response and song, called the “Magnificat,” has been captured and arranged by different composers throughout the centuries. C.P.E. Bach wrote his “Magnificat” in 1749; Robert Ray wrote his “Gospel Magnificat” exactly 250 years later. The MSOC will perform both of these pieces.

The piece’s similarities stop with their titles. C.P.E. Bach, the son of renowned composer Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote his “Magnificat” in a style that transitions his father’s Baroque music with the classical style of Haydn. Ray, on the other hand, composes his “Gospel Magnificat” to resemble how the piece would be performed in a modern-day Baptist or AME church. Ray’s piece, says Mack, “celebrates this country’s contemporary sounds while enlivening the Annunciation story.” According to Ray himself, it will be the piece’s area debut.

“I think it is really important to have a sense of adventure without a sense of alienation,” states Mack on why the MSOC is playing these particular opuses.

“I thought the pieces would be interesting for what I hope to be an engaging concert season with the MSOC,” Mack explains enthusiastically. “It seems to me that a group such as this is very well suited for presenting less familiar works by familiar composers, or things that would be relatively unfamiliar but are appealing to audiences, rather then doing things that they can hear elsewhere by different organizations.”

Mack continues, “There is always a risk with something new. But it just seems foolish to be tapping the same audiences with the same pieces. Music, particularly choral music, is such a remarkably wide, diverse, and old medium that there is so much material … that just doesn’t happen to benefit from the luck of being famous.”

The program’s finale blends famous older pieces with a modern pen. Robert Shaw, who was selected by Arturo Toscanini to lead the NBC Chorale, arranges traditional carol favorites in “The Many Moods of Christmas.” The piece bridges a contemporary composer with classic Christmas music like “Greensleeves,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Joy to the World.”

The MSOC distinguishes itself by presenting both instrumental and voice selections, and both chorale and orchestra leaders bring world-class credentials to Manchester. Mack earned his master’s degree at Juilliard and has taught at several universities throughout Connecticut. He will be conducting both the orchestra and chorale for the upcoming concert.

The orchestra’s permanent conductor, Lewis Buckley, served as the director of the United States Coast Guard band for 29 years. He spent a year as the assistant conductor of the MSOC before taking over as conductor last season.

The unique dynamic suits both leaders just fine. “The MSOC is unusual in that the chorus and orchestra are equal partners,” says Mack. “That is normally not the case, and that’s a wonderful thing, all too rare to see, in the eyes of the performing world.”

The instrumental leader concurs. “It was a return to my roots,” states Buckley, “because I was a choir director before I was an instrumental conductor. I had quite a bit of opportunity to work with the chorale during the time when I was the assistant conductor and I really treasured that.”

The MSOC is comprised of virtually all volunteers, who have kept their passion for music alive. That passion translates itself into musical excellence. “I find amongst the singers and instrumentalists,” Mack says, “that they can often sell themselves short, but with the right people at the helm, I think they can realize the remarkable amount of potential that they possess.”

The Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale annual Holiday Concert will be held at North United Methodist Church, 300 Parker St., on Saturday Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 4, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $13 for adults, $10 for seniors and students over 18, and free for children under 18.

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