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DIFFICULT `MAGNIFICAT’ SUNG WITH CLARITY

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An air of festivity hung over the First Presbyterian Church for the Christmas concert of the Utah Chamber Artists, a large and lively group with an accent on youth and dedication to launching a joyous holiday season that shone on their faces.

The major work of the program was Bach's "Magnificat," a masterful setting of the Virgin Mary's response to the annunciatory angel, as found in the Gospel of Luke - such satisfying Christmas music that it deserves wider exposure at this time of year. Unfortunately, many choruses are not up to the technical difficulties of this work. Fortunately, the Utah Chamber Artists are.The chorus of nearly 40 responded with commendable clarity and articulation to the work's many florid demands, singing with a wide gamut of dynamic expression and steadily maintaining the integrity of the polyphonic lines.

Equally adept was the orchestra, liberally sprinkled with professional artists, often heard to good effect in solo obligatos, sometimes played on authentic baroque instruments.

It was immediately clear that Bradford had a plan for the shape of the piece and demanded strict adherence to its baroque simplicity and purity. The choral sound was sometimes a little thin and white for my taste, especially in the soprano; but this whiteness is a defensible choice, leading to spare, sinewy strength rather than romantic tonal coloration.

The opening "Magnificat" sounded a little scattered, and "Omnes generationes" not quite warmed up, though articulation and tempo proceeded without compromise. But with "Fecit potentiam" the chorus hit its stride, with golden baroque trumpets sounding the charge.

Especially lovely were the closing choruses - "Suscepit Israel," sung with flexible ease by the women's voices; the clean-cut fugue, "Sicut locutus est," and the final brilliantly expressive "Gloria patri," with its canonic coiling and folding.

Solos form the major part of this extended cantata, many of them especially familiar and beloved.

Mezzo-soprano Lani Poulson sang both soprano and alto solos with a warm, unstinting tone, beautiful legato line, and the clearest of diction. Especially beautiful were her "Et Exultavit," sung in long, warm phrases, and the rich, lilting "Esurientes."

Poulson joined tenor George Dyer for the affecting duet, "Et misericordia," which with its sinuous phrases and subtle triple rhythm so effectively conveys a sense of God's tender mercy.

Dyer was suitably vital and articulate in the more militant "Deposuit potentes," and Michael Judd Sheranian added a solid, manly bass presence, with melismatic security, in "Quia fecit."

Filling out the program was an extended group of carols, some familiar, some new and intriguing; some with orchestra and some a cappella.

Especially lovely was a muted setting of William Blake's "The Lamb" with modern tonalities. William Walton's "What Cheer" proceeded with medieval joviality, and the free-flowing good humor of John Rutter's "Good Ale" contrasted with Bradford's own reflective arrangement, "As Dew in April." Always a winner, "White Christmas" profited from Bernell Hales' sophisticated arrangement for chorus and orchestra.

This concert was recorded and will be broadcast by KBYU-FM on Sunday, Dec. 25, at 5 p.m.