Christmas at Carnegie Hall took a dramatic turn last Tuesday with the stuff of choral lovers’ and theologians’ dreams. Making his debut as the music director of the New York Choral Society was David Hayes, who, true to his own philosophy, brought to the group a new element of affect that sent goose bumps through the crowd.
L’Enfance du Christ is the three-part classic oratorio by 19th century composer Hector Berlioz, whose interpretation of the Christ story was based mainly on classical literature and dramatic works. With a touch of modernity, the chorus brought to life the story of Jesus Christ’s Nativity and the Holy Family’s escape from King Herod.
The piece was preceded by a short work from Brooklyn’s own Jennifer Higdon, whose innovative scores have earned her a place as one of the most performed living American composers working today. Written in 2002, O Magnum Mysterium is based on traditional Holy Scripture and was sung both in its original Latin and English. Sparse orchestral accompaniment and two glass harpists (demonstrating a refreshing way to use wine glasses, no pun intended) built up to the main attraction with ample eeriness.
The program’s headliner was a majestic tour de force that captivated the audience’s senses. No part of the stage was spared: English supertitles above head translated Berlioz’s French lyrics, and all 180 chorus members conveyed a score that was alternately unsettling and infectiously peppy.
At the fore of L’Enfance du Christ were Heather Johnson (Mezzo-soprano) as Mary, Alan Held (Bass-baritone) as Joseph, Richard Bernstein (Bass) as King Herod and William Burden (Tenor) as the narrator.
Burden held his own in conveying his costars parts as one, and Bernstein was the perfect choice as Herod both vocally and viscerally. Heather Johnson was the absolute picture of grace as she heeded the counsel of the angels—the female choir section—to flee to Egypt. Held played her more no-nonsense counterpart, yet sang with enough tenderness to complement her part. By the time Mary and Joseph arrive at Saïs, Johnson and Held were visibly moved by their own emotional pilgrimage.
The show’s epilogue was indelible all on its own. The whole company projected of Christ’s future and ultimate sacrifice with some very simple yet heart wrenching words: “What remains then but to bow your heads before such a wonder?”