Rob Kapilow has much ‘splaining to do re Britten and the Christmas carol

December 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm

By David Wright

Rob Kapilow explained what makes Britten and Christmas carols great Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Peter Schaaf

What would the holidays be without an expert to explain Christmas carols to us?

It might seem like a question only a music critic would ask, but in fact quite a healthy-sized crowd showed up at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Friday night to see a holiday edition of composer Rob Kapilow’s long-running (literally trademarked) music-appreciation show, What Makes It Great?®, featuring Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.

As presented Friday by Celebrity Series of Boston, Kapilow proved yet again that he is the nearest thing we have today to the celebrity music-explainers of yore, such as Leonard Bernstein on television and, decades earlier, Deems Taylor on the radio.  In his Bernstein-like format, Kapilow first dissected Britten’s composition at the keyboard, with further musical illustrations by assisting artists, then led a complete performance of the work.

Kapilow’s collaborators included the rising-star harpist Krysten Keches and a well-trained group of 26 singers, mostly elementary-school age, from the Brookline-based youth choral program formerly known as PALS, now rather grandly renamed Voices Boston.

But it was Kapilow himself who set the tempo Friday night, which can be described as “sempre molto allegro.”  His act originated twenty years ago as a brief segment on the NPR program Performance Today, and even now, with a whole evening at his disposal, he still talks as if he hears the producer saying in his ear, “Ten seconds, Rob.”

If all that excess energy was distracting during his opening remarks to the audience, it translated as excitement and involvement as soon as he was standing at his electric keyboard picking out themes and chords, or turning to cue musical examples from the harp or the chorus.

The lecture appeared well rehearsed, as harpist and singers neatly dropped in a few bars of illustration here and there without interrupting the flow of Kapilow’s up-tempo presentation.

Those music examples even included some bars Britten never wrote, since one of the commentator’s favorite gambits was to show what a theme would sound like with conventional harmonies, then performing Britten’s spicier, more original version and exclaiming “That’s what makes it great!”.

The concentration required of the young singers to perform those “almost Britten” passages instead of the music they had so painstakingly rehearsed must have been considerable.

In fact, the entire well-oiled production took on the character not so much of a lecture as of a kind of performance art.  To look at the audience—which fit the demogaphic stereotype of a classical-music crowd, median age over 60—this Bernsteinesque event was anything but a “young people’s concert,” and one wondered whether the real attraction of it was less learning new things about music than witnessing Kapilow’s high-wire act in dishing them out.

Perhaps many in the audience didn’t need terms like ostinato, canon and accidental explained to them, but it was impressive to observe Kapilow doing so on the fly, while keeping the music coming.  It was like watching a man who clearly loves cars dismantle and reassemble a Ferrari.

But anyone from ignoramus to connoisseur could enjoy contemplating the dozens of telling musical details Kapilow pointed out.  In the end, one felt that it was the sheer profusion of these inspired touches in the piece, any one of which would have made an average composer’s day, that truly “made it great.”

To this Kapilow astutely added other observations of greatness, such as Britten’s ability to “perfectly capture the mood of the text in just a few notes,” be it a shivery winter landscape, the scene at the crèche, the transports of spring, a lullaby, a theological argument, or a battle between the forces of good and evil.

Kapilow leavened his talk with humor, making a face when emphasizing a “wrong” note in Britten’s modern harmony or describing one carol’s account of Adam’s sin leading to Christ’s redemption of humanity as “sort of a good-news-bad-news situation.”

He also got the audience involved now and then, with a hand-clapping exercise to subdivide a 6/4 measure in different ways, or trying to say a line from a carol really fast, the way Britten set it in the piece.

His one miscalculation of the evening, to this listener at least, was closing his talk with instructions to the audience to applaud the upcoming performance while the choir was still on stage—that is, after the final carol but before they exited the hall singing.

Since Kapilow had already made the point that Britten, a man of the theater, had made a “ceremony” including the singing entrance and exit of the choir, it would have been nice to allow the kids to create that effect uninterrupted.  One could always beckon them back into the house for a bow.  As it was, their departing “Hodie Christus natus est” was drowned out by the continuing applause as they moved up the aisles.

Except for that off moment, the straight-through performance of the piece after the intermission went very well, as the young amateur singers of Voices Boston showed what hard work can accomplish.  That this level of singing can arise from a come-one-come-all community music program suggests the existence of a “sistema” of youth music in our midst, although its present mastermind, artistic director Andy Icochea Icochea, is a native of Peru, not Venezuela.

Surely the singers were thoroughly drilled on pitch, which was uncommonly accurate for a kid’s choir.  The pleasure of hearing a high note hit right on the button by a child’s voice is hard to overestimate.  Only occasionally did one hear the pitch sag a little at the end of a phrase. They even managed fairly well in the tight confines and dissonant minor-second harmonies of “In Freezing Winter Night,” which have baffled many an adult choir.

The even tighter canon of “This Little Babe,” with its scorching tempo and the voices entering a fraction of a second apart, seemed like child’s play to this group.  There was room for improvement in diction, but there almost always is in a youth choir, and elsewhere in the piece the attention already paid to this subject was evident.

Three singers, unidentified in the program book, stepped out of the mostly-female group to give affecting, but entirely unaffected, solos.  In order of appearance, they were an alto with a slightly hazy, expressive timbre; a treble with bell-like high notes; and a tall treble who sang without vibrato but with more mature expression.  The first and third of these did a pretty, dancing duet in “Spring Carol.”

Harpist Keches did full justice to Britten’s wonderfully inventive harp part, no mere accompaniment to singers but an essential generator of the atmosphere and drama of this “ceremony.”  Her rendering of the wintry Andante pastorale harp interlude at the center of the work was mesmerizing.

Considering his somewhat twitchy manner when talking to an audience, Kapilow proved a surprisingly vigorous and economical conductor, guiding the young singers smartly through Britten’s score.  It was amusing to watch him give an extra elbow to the same dissonant notes he had just pointed out in his talk.

In keeping with the edifying nature of the occasion, Kapilow brought harpist Keches, choir director Icochea Icochea, and the evening’s third solo singer onstage after the performance for about twenty minutes of freewheeling questions and answers with the audience.  The speakers gave amusing and informative responses to queries about Britten’s life, the Voices Boston program, what it’s like to sing in a youth choir, the challenges of performing this piece, and much else.

But what stuck in the mind at the end was a little homily Kapilow delivered at the end of his presentation in the event’s first half.  Having talked his way through Britten’s piece, he reflected on the necessity of every composer writing to please himself or herself, as Britten did in the mid-twentieth century, when his modern but tonal harmonies were out of step with the prevailing fashion of Schoenbergian twelve-tone composition.  He quoted the psychologist and author Joseph Campbell to the effect that “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”

One could reflect further that, while it’s fashionable in some quarters to sneer at “the music-appreciation racket” (as the indisputably great critic Virgil Thomson liked to call it), Rob Kapilow has clearly found his métier in it, converting 15 minutes of NPR fame into 17 consecutive seasons on the Celebrity Series stage, among other things.

You may not have heard Kapilow’s own compositions or attended one of his no-talk performances, but it would be hard to be unaware of him as a media personality, explaining the classics everywhere you turn, and being who he is.

One hopes the kids in Voices Boston eventually find that a worthy goal for a lifetime: to make, like Britten, Campbell, Schoenberg, and Kapilow, something that is truly one’s own, something one can honestly put the ® on.

The next presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be Inon Barnatan, piano, 8 p.m. December 10 at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall.  celebrityseries.org617-482-6661.

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