Sunday, December 25, 2016

Chirstmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s schedule on KPBS was a Christmas-themed special featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (an annual event, though this year’s had a special “wrinkle” I hadn’t recalled seeing before —more on that later) and a lumbering Mexican music special called El Gran Concieto de Gala del Mariachi, though in between them they ran an episode of the sporadically interesting Australian detective show Doctor Blake Mysteries. The 2016 edition of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir definitely deserves points for an unusual musical program — about the only familiar song was “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” and though it’s fairly well known it’s hardly as (over)played a holiday standard as “White Christmas” or “Silent Night.” The show opened with a hymn called “Come All You and Rejoice,” followed by a lovely song called “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” which was mainly a feature for four soloists, each in the normal vocal ranges (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), taking turns delivering its lovely lyric. After that they did “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with a Tony Award-nominated guest star named Lana Osnos (I’m guessing at the spelling because they chyroned the song but not her name!) — a bit of a comedown from previous Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas shows in which they’d had starrier guest stars (like opera diva Kiri te Kanawa) — and then a piece called “Over the River and Through the Wood” before they returned to familiar territory for a “Christmas Bell Medley” consisting of “Caroling, Caroling Through the Snow,” “Silver Bells,” “Carol of the Bells,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “Jingle Bells” (you get it: all songs with titles or key lyrics containing the word “bells”!) and a song called “Fum! Fum! Fum!” (I give credit to all those good little Mormon boys and girls for keeping their faces straight through a song called “Fum! Fum! Fum!”) Then they did the first of two surprises on the program: the “Farandole” from Bizet’s incidental music to the play L’Arlesienne, outfitted with a set of lyrics about the Three Wise Men and featuring a dance in which characters played the Wise Men (though at least one of them looked like a Wise Woman in drag).

After another beautiful performance of an unusual song, “The Wexford Carol,” the show went into the main event of the evening, which was announced as a performance of the chorus “For Unto Us” from Handel’s The Messiah with guest star Martin Jarvis, a British actor. What actually happened was about a 30-minute potted version of Messiah in which Jarvis’s role was to deliver a narration about how Messiah came to be written in the first place: Handel had just gone broke presenting Italian-language operas in London (the Mormon Tabernacle’s script diplomatically omitted mention that the main reason both Handel’s company and his principal commercial rival collapsed at the same time was the growing revulsion of the London public towards the whole idea of castrati, who were essential to performing opera seria at the time — indeed the use of castrati is the major stumbling block when these works are revived now and conductors debate whether it’s more authentic to have the castrato roles played by countertenors or women in drag) and he decided to turn to oratorio, which would have the benefit of performance in English and the basis on familiar religious themes. Handel wrote The Messiah in 1741 and tried to get it performed in London. No one would bite, but in 1742 he got an offer to present it in Dublin (yay! We Irish bailed him out after the Brits turned their back on him!) as a benefit for people in debtors’ prisons — the idea was that the organizers would pick out 100 or so prisoners and use the concert proceeds to pay off their debts so they could be freed. The Messiah got great reviews in Dublin — and no doubt the 100-plus prisoners who were set free from its proceeds were grateful, too — but when it was performed in London it flopped. So Handel eventually organized another charity performance, this time for the Foundling Hospital, an institution that the script for this show explained had been formed to take care of the children of women servants who had been forced to have sex with their masters, had got “with child” and been shunned for having had premarital sex. (Let’s not get too snooty about how rape victims who get pregnant are treated in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan; we used to pull the same stuff ourselves.) The idea was that women who got pregnant this way were simply abandoning their kids, so the Foundling Hospital was formed essentially as an orphanage to take them in and raise them so they could ultimately become good and decent members of society.

What was amazing about this presentation of the history of The Messiah was how progressive it was politically; as conservative as they are in their involvements in outside politics, the Mormons run such an extensive social-service network for their members they’ve been called the most successful socialist group in American history, and that tradition of helping people truly in need informed how they presented Messiah even though, if anything, the Zeitgeist of the U.S. is going the other way, towards the Libertarian belief that everyone is on his or her own and if bad things happen to them that’s their fault and not the responsibility of anyone, especially the government, to help them out (though some real-life Libertarians square the circle and say they have no objection to private churches or charities helping the needy, but draw the line at having the government do it on the ground that if you tax the well-off to help the not-so-well-off, you are essentially stealing from the well-off and denying them the full gain from their talents). The Messiah, presented in this odd blend of musical performance (in the early 1960’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded Messiah complete under unusual circumstances; the orchestral parts of the score were made first, by Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic; then the choir was dubbed in separately, as were the solo singers; Eileen Farrell was the soprano and she joked in an interview, “That’s what sells that recording, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! It sure ain’t the singers, honey!”), narration and dramatization (including an actor playing Handel scratching away at music paper with a quill pen), took up about half the hour-long running time of this show and definitely offered something different from what previous editions of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had led me to expect.