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Westminster Community Orchestra Ends Season With Themes, Variations, and Children's Choir

Nancy Plum

Westminster Community Orchestra conductor Sarah Hatsuko Hicks is an orchestral conductor with an affinity for voice. At least two of the orchestra's programs this year have included some sort of singing, including Saturday night's collaboration with the Westminster Conservatory Children's Choir. In a concert entitled "Theme & Variations" presented in Richardson Auditorium, Ms. Hicks conducted the community based instrumental ensemble in a well-structured and energetic performance of two significant choral works.

Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn and Elgar's Enigma Variations both use the theme and variations technique to explore orchestral colors. For the opening statement of the Brahms work, Ms. Hicks took a stately tempo, with somewhat heavy lower strings but an unobtrusive brass section. Each of the nine variations has its own character, and several of the entrances to the variations were exceptionally clean. The brass also demonstrated crisp playing in the sixth variation, which began with a hunting motive.

Twenty years after Brahms, Edward Elgar tried his hand at incorporating the personalities of his friends and colleagues into fourteen variations on an "enigma." The resulting Enigma Variations provides ample opportunity for an orchestra to explore a variety of palettes and instrumental combinations.

The Elgar work was very dark compared to the rest of the program, but Ms. Hicks kept the fourteen sections flowing well. Certain variations focused on specific instruments or sections, and the ensemble changed styles effectively. Variation VII was particularly interesting for the brass, while Variation XII focused on the cellos. The second variation was the hardest for Ms. Hicks to hold together because of its lightning speed, and among the best played were Variations IX and XI.

In between these two orchestral works were several choral pieces, performed by the Westminster Conservatory Children's Choir and conducted by the Choir's director, Patricia Thel. The more than 80-voice ensemble was hampered in the first two pieces by its distance from the conductor. The "Kyrie" and "Gloria" from Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm's Mass in C Major, composed in the early 1800s but recently arranged for children's chorus and string orchestra placed Ms. Thel at the front of the stage while the chorus was at the back on the hall's natural stone risers. The mostly treble ensemble (with a small contingent of altos) could have used all the projection it could find in the opening "Kyrie," but the "Gloria" was more spirited and emphatic. Regardless of the volume attainable, the chorus was consistently well blended and precise with their diction. The two vocal soloists for this work, high school junior Liana Guberman and Elizabeth Johnston, were both poised in their delivery and blended well with each other.

The second choral piece, To Music, arranged by Betty Bertaux, was also accompanied by an orchestra that overpowered the choir at times, but the same well-blended sound carried through. For the third piece, Ms. Thel conducted Paul Caldwell's Hope for Resolution from directly in front of the choir, which created more solid communication. This piece is an unusual combination of a 13th century plainsong and a South African anti-apartheid tune, and although the two melodies may not appear to go together all the time, this piece always seems to work for children's choirs. Ms. Thel led her choristers in a lively rendition of the work, enabling the children to really sing out.

Ms. Hicks programming of orchestral works juxtaposed with vocal pieces is always refreshing, both providing a variety of musical textures in the concert and demonstrating the depth of talent at the Conservatory. Next year's season, which opens on October 24 with standard orchestral works combined with a children's opera based on music from Mozart's The Magic Flute, will not only provide the adults in the orchestra with challenging repertoire but also give young students the opportunity to excel.

Information about the Westminster Community Orchestra season can be obtained by calling the Westminster box office at (609) 921-2663.

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