The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Dec6Filed under: Christmas music, Classical Music, Lexington Singers, Music, Singletary Center for the Arts, SummerFest, UK; Tagged as: Alluring, Collage, Cynthia Lawrence, deborah lander, Dieter Hennings, Jessica Miskelly, Lee Todd, Lexington Singers Children's Choir, Once On This Island, Paws & Listen, Reginald Smith Jr., Schuyler Robinson, SummerFest, Tai-Kristin Smedley, UK Chorale, UK Men's Chorus, UK Steel Band, University of Kentucky choirs
The University of Kentucky choirs’ holiday “Collage” concert has always been a little hard to get a handle on. No specific group is highlighted beyond a few minutes and there is no defined style, except really good music.
It’s just something you have to see, and this year’s edition is something to see.
More than 330 musicians are involved in the show that was presented Saturday night at UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts and will be presented again at 3 p.m. Sunday.
It’s a wide range of musicians. The UK Choirs are ostensibly the stars of the show, but they constantly cede the stage to other acts such as the UK Steel Band, the Lexington Singers Children’s Choir, the Alluring hand bell ensemble and some of UK’s newest faculty.
The show started in grand fashion with the combined choirs and organist Schuyler Robinson’s rendition of “Adeste fideles” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”). Then the show quickly minimalized to new UK guitar instructor Dieter Hennings with a classicaly intricate rendition of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that had a bluesy warmth. Then the show built up again to the Steel Band, the Children’s Choir and a performance of “Santa Baby” by Paws & Listen — one of several numbers with that distinct mid-20th Century pop Christmas vibe we remember from things like celebrity holiday TV specials.
And that’s how the evening went, shifting styles and ensembles to create a show that truly lived up to its picturesque title.
The highlights included a sumptuous “Ave Maria” by the UK Men’s Chorus which highlighted their precision and sensitivity; the UK Chorale’s “Estampie natalis” with the UK Chorale and viola faculty Deborah Lander leading an intriguing ensemble of cello, piccolo and percussion; and new voice faculty Cynthia Lawrence making you forget all those other “O Holy Nights” you’ve heard.
A few years ago, UK President Lee Todd said the UK School of Music was “on fire,” and “Collage” served as an apt illustration of that. Since then, UK has hired some stunning faculty like Lander and Lawrence, and “Collage” served as sort of this mirror showcase where the audience could see the quality of the program and how it must be attracting high quality new faculty members.
Several UK students also got to cap off very good performance years, including violinist Jessica Miskelly in a rich “Carol of the Bells” that altered my perception of it as strictly a vocal piece, SummerFest’s “Once on This Island” star Tai-Kristin Smedley singing “Somewhere in my Memory” and Reginald Smith Jr. as a featured soloist in the concert closer “Betelehemu.”
A lot of directors might have flipped the Act I finale of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus with the African number performed by the combined choirs and the UK African Percussion Ensemble. But with that lineup, UK director of choral activities Jefferson Johnson ended the evening showing off the great skill and diversity of the School of Music.
All that, and it was a great Christmas concert too. That’s really all we need to know.
Usually singers in the Kentucky District round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions have a 1-in-5, maybe 1-in-4 chance of advancing to the next round. This year, it’s more like 1-in-9.
Maybe it’s some sort of anniversary karma because this will be the 10th year the Kentucky District auditions have been contested in Memorial Hall, but regardless of the cosmic reasons, the fact is 28 singers are going to give it a shot Saturday.
We don’t know a lot of these singers, as they hail from Indiana, Cincinnati and even as far off as New York and Chicago. But in the midst of them is a veritible all-star team of University of Kentucky singers we know very well, including virtually all the leads in October’s world premier production of Joseph Baber’s “River of Time.”
And over 10 years, UK has developed a strong record of sending people who come into town looking for an easy win home empty handed. Certainly any of the voices judges will hear could break through to the regional round in Indianapolis, but here are a couple of locals and one well-known visitor worth watching:
Amanda Balltrip — She has never left a Met Auditions empty handed. Her first two years she won the encouragement award and last year she broke through to the regionals. Clearly a variety of judges have liked what this 24-year-old soprano does, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see her finish in the money again.
Reginald Smith Jr. — Since 2000, when 21-year old Asbury College tenor Norman Reinhardt won the first Met Auditions at Memorial Hall, Lexington fans have understood the Met likes to get singers young. Since he appeared as the baritone soloist in George Zack’s final “Messiah” in 2007, 21-year-old Smith has been knocking local music fans out with his massive voice. Given his age, if he has a similar effect on the judges, it’s easy to imagine him advancing to Indy.
Afton Battle — Speaking of massive voices, Battle was the last UK singer to advance from the Kentucky Districts to New York, where she competed in the national semifinals. A former student of late UK voice professor Gail Robinson, Battle has moved on to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. But she’s returned to Kentucky to take another shot at the Met, and Lexington could easily be the first of several steps for her, again.
Of course, there are 25 other singers in the field, and one thing that was striking last year was the vastly improved quality of the Kentucky District field over the years. So, regardless of who wins, it should be a great day for the audience.
I’ve talked before at le blog about the challenge of reviewing University of Kentucky Opera Theatre productions because the collegiate company always double-casts shows due to singers’ needs for vocal rest — professional companies rarely put a show up on consecutive days for that reason — and to spread experience around.
It has its up sides, of course, but one downside is that only one cast gets reviewed by the paper. We simply do not have the time or space to review a show twice, and waiting for both casts to perform would hamper our efforts to deliver a timely review.
The same is true for UKOT’s world premier production of River of Time, which opened Thursday night at the Lexington Opera House. Nick Provenzale sings the lead role of Abraham Lincoln all three nights, but most of the primary singing roles are double cast. We reviewed Cast A (UKOT’s termionology) last night, which acquitted itself quite well in a new opera that had some big issues in story and pace.
That said, I did get to catch Cast 1, which performs tonight (Oct. 9), in a rehearsal last week, and if you are holding tickets for tonight’s performance or are thinking of going, I don’t think you’ll be shortchanged.
Among the standouts set to go on tonight are Reginald Smith Jr. as Billy the Barber and Julie LaDouceur as Ann Rutledge.
Based on what I caught that evening, some of the different performers will likely bring different vibes to their work. LaDouceur’s Ann seemed sweeter and more whistful than Amanda Balltrip’s more feisty, jocular take. And Smith, whose voice will always get your attention, put a lot of comand behind his version of Billy, performed with tremendous empathy by Mark Elliott Golson II last night and Saturday.
So the takes may be somewhat different, but either way, you should expect some terrific performances.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich