Opus 7 celebrates Christmas at St. James

R. M. Campbell, The Gathering Note, December, 2009

Opus 7, one of the most esteemed musical groups anywhere, has little interest in musical trinkets of the season, at least this year. At its annual Christmas concert Sunday night at St James Cathedral, the vocal ensemble looked to Mendelssohn as well as Einojuhani Rautavaara and Georg Schumann instead. All proved to be fascinating.

Generally devoted to new music of the area, Opus 7′s founding artistic director Loren Ponten chose to complete the group’s Mendelssohn cycle this past weekend with two works, separated by nearly a decade: “Magnificat,” composed at the remarkable age of 13, and “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven on High”)… The group’s reading was variable in its effects. “Von Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven on High”) was on a more even keel and thus ultimately more satisfying.

…[Finnish composer Rautavaara’s] “Canticum Mariae Virginis” is a shimmering piece of music that evokes the Virgin Mary. It moves in wondrous and sometimes strange ways, suggesting the old and the new but always with its own language. It is here that Opus 7 was at its best, not only because of its well-trained ears and musical talent, but its long association with modern music. For many groups, the Rautvaara would hold many terrors. Not Opus 7, or so it appeared.

…Opus 7 treated [Georg Schumann’s “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her”] with careful balances, textural clarity and an assured sense of the urgency of the text.

Ponten is a conductor of intelligence and musical adaptability, not to mention ambition and hard work. The soloists for the night were excellent: soprano Lisa Ponten, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld, bass Norman Smith and baritone Ben Grover.

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