Monday, December 20, 2010

Once Upon A Night

Once Upon A Night is a Christmas cantata by Pepper Choplin. Al Packard, our local impresario (who created our community chorus and community band out of nothing, and who is the music director for the Presbyterian Church), put together a performance of this yesterday morning for the Sunday service, pulling together an impressive number of local performers.

This piece of music is hands down the music I've most enjoyed playing in an ensemble since taking up the horn five or six years ago. Most of the music we play in the community band (except the Sousa) and the Presbyterian Ensemble seems to my ear to be written by pedagogues for pedagogues. There's always the feeling each piece is really an etude meant to drill the students and impress theory minded people - with modulations and meter changes and tempo shifts and articulation workouts every few measures, few of which seem called for to my ear, which enjoys the sustained building of feeling states and finds all the sudden shifting off-putting. 

The piece was written for narrator, chorus and soloists, and piano, and then optional orchestration was added. We had a flute, oboe/English horn and horn, all of which stay pretty busy, along with percussion, a clarinet, the bassoon part played by trombone, a trombone, two trumpets, a tuba and a string bass. 

There were meter changes here and there throughout, but always following the rhythm of the text in a completely natural and reinforcing way. The few modulations were also tightly bound to the text.

The flute and oboe/English horn had a lot of interludes between and under the narrations and choruses/solos/duets. The horn had some of that, along with a lot of being under the vocals with harmonies and counter melodies (it was reminiscent at times of supporting singers with a guitar). 

One of the things I most liked about the piece is the way multiple melodies and counter melodies are woven together. The flute and oboe or English horn often had intertwining lines, but that weaving of melodies happens throughout the piece for everyone.

I was not the only one struck by the beauty of the piece. A number of players and singers mentioned how much they liked it. The great thing, though, was talking to the congregation afterwards (many of whom I've known all my sixty some years) and hearing in their voices and seeing in their eyes just how moved they were.

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