Of all the annual holiday events I cover, “Festival of Carols” presented by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir (ISC) was the one I missed the most last year when it was canceled due to the pandemic. So, it was with great joy and anticipation that I witnessed its return to the Palladium in Carmel on Friday.
I have a special affinity and appreciation for choral music due to my own participation as a singer in the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus for six years. As for the caliber of the ISC, consider its featured guest this year, soprano Angela Brown, a multi-genre artist who hails from Indianapolis and has performed in operas and pop concerts and with major symphonies all over the world. With its artistic affiliation with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO), I consider ISC to be the gold standard for choral music in Central Indiana, if not the entire state. And of course, I would be remiss if I did not credit for excellence the group’s artistic director, Dr. Eric Stark, who conducts the chorus, and in the case of “Festival of Carols,” the prodigious Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra that accompanied the choir.
Evidence of the “new normal” (depending on what COVID protocols are in place) were the 106 ISC singers wearing masks throughout the concert, as well as the ICO musicians. Unfortunately, though it could not be avoided, the collective sound of the choir was muffled by the masks. However, that handicap was offset by the acoustics of the Palladium, regarded as one of the finest music halls in the world. Though the ISC’s home at Hilbert Circle Theatre is an ideal performance venue, the Palladium, with its gallery section where the choir was ensconced above the ICO, provides a spectacular setting for any choir and makes for a very dramatic image to see so many singers amassed together.
As he has in the past, Dr. Stark created a varied, entertaining program, which captured the spirit of the holiday through songs that ranged from sacred to lighthearted. Included were both traditional Christmas carols and a few others not widely known. Highlights of the concert were each of Brown’s songs. Wearing two gorgeously designed, full-length gowns, a red one in the first act and green in the second, and her signature brilliant smile, Brown looked every inch the glamorous diva she is. Showing remarkable poise, ease and control, and demonstrating her vocal instrument is still as powerful as ever, she dazzled with “The Song in Our Hearts,” “Celebrate Me Home,” “What Child is This?” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” an exquisite a cappella rendition of a spiritual titled “Sweet Little Baby Jesus,” and “He Shall Feed His Flock” from Handel’s “Messiah.”
Other musical interludes I enjoyed immensely were concertmaster Mari Lunde’s dynamic violin solo of “Allegro non molto” from “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” ISC pianist/arranger David Duncan’s clever medley of song requests gathered from the audience that included “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Somewhere in My Memory.”
The concert ended with two pieces that are traditionally played at “Festival of Carols” concerts, to which I always look forward. Always inspirational was the moving “The Dream Isaiah Saw” written by Glenn Rudolph, who was present and introduced to the audience, and the “Hallelujah Chorus,” also from “Messiah.”
It is not mere hyperbole to state that listening to the ISC perform, and especially during “Festival of Carols” is as close as one can get to hearing angelic voices in heaven. The wall of sound coming from the superb blend of trained voices, augmented by the exceptional orchestra, reflects an art form that has the ability to transport and impact one emotionally in a visceral way. The concert left me feeling uplifted and with a sense of hope for a future when singers, much less musicians and certainly not audiences, will not to be masked and can partake, without trepidation or fear, in the collective, live experience that is the performing arts.