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Music : The Wagner Chorale Christmas Present

It was like old times at the Vallejo Drive Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale Saturday night, where the Roger Wagner Chorale presented another of its cherishable Christmas programs. The audience was sprinkled with alumni from past chorales--and though Wagner was forced to conduct from a wheelchair this time, the veteran maestro displayed plenty of his usual feisty charm.

But nostalgia was hardly the only force at work here. More than four years after his stormy retirement from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Wagner continues to remind us from time to time of his matchless ability to draw sound from a group of mixed voices.

One was transported to the not-so-distant past by the clear, bright, dynamically flexible singing from this 35-voice group--with every word crisply enunciated. Even when working with such compact numbers, Wagner continues to draw a much richer bass sound from the men than do choirmasters with much larger forces.

Wagner also put together a canny, mostly unhackneyed program with a clear historical progression--sung either a cappella or with William Beck’s support at the pipe organ. Starting in the Renaissance with the “Hodie Nobis” of Nanini and two versions of “Hodie Christus Natus Est” by Sweelink and Palestrina, Wagner worked his way up to the buoyant “Magnificat” that has been attributed to Pergolesi.

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Berlioz’s wonderfully plaintive, fragile “L’Adieu des Bergers” from “L’Enfance du Christ,” though rushed in the first two verses, paid off with a hushed, broader third verse (only to have the organ end in a different key). Moving into our century, Wagner followed Leo Sowerby’s moody, harmonically sophisticated arrangement of “The Manger Carol” with Daniel Pinkham’s sometimes tough, sometimes brightly syncopated, always interesting “Christmas Cantata.”

The more familiar Christmas fare was saved for the second half. Wagner’s own “The Christmas Story According to St. Luke"--written for a Tennessee Ernie Ford television special many years ago--was a modest concoction that conveniently laced together several well-known carols with tasteful organ interludes and hyperdramatic narration by Burton York.

Also in the second half, pianist/composer Jan Sanborn accompanied the chorale in her touching song, “No Longer a Baby,” and the chorale deftly handled the off-kilter meters of John Gardner’s “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day.” Two delectable encores wrapped up the package--"He Is Born” and “Carol of the Bells.”


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