The television audience will see a performance of the Choral Arts Society's Christmas program rather different from and in some ways better than what was seen yesterday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. What the ticket-buying audience saw was a program beautifully sung and played but sometimes disorganized to the brink of chaos. The beauty can be attributed to conductor Norman Scribner and the musicians who were working with him.
The chaos was the work of a television crew. It can be edited out of the tapes, which will condense to one hour a program that took nearly three -- including long lapses for the solution of technical problems. It will be harder to edit the chaos out of the memories of those who were there, and for many it may not be necessary. Obviously, a part of the audience was attracted by the presence of television cameras and television personalities. We may have reached the point where "No, but I was in the live audience" has acquired the same kind of status as "No, but I read the book."
The program began with several minutes of silence during which host Richard Thomas sat in a box in the first tier saying things to a television camera that were otherwise inaudible. To find out what he said, we will have to tune in to PBS (Channel 26 at 8 p.m. Wednesday).
Some of us will also have to watch television to know how Leontyne Price looked while she was singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O Jesulein su ss," "Angels We Have Heard on High," selections from Handel's "Messiah," "Mary Had a Baby," "O Holy Night" and "Sweet Li'l Jesus Boy." There were two cameras almost on top of her while she performed, and one of them effectively blocked the view for a significant part of the live audience. She sounded fine, right from the beginning, without the sense of warming up on stage that has plagued some of her performances in recent years. An occasional note (never as much as a whole phrase) was slightly below her usual high standard, though good enough for most other singers. As she has been doing for years, she went up to the top of her range for the chorus of "Angels We Have Heard on High," and the effect was as dazzling as ever. In contrast, the total, dedicated and very artful simplicity of "Sweet Li'l Jesus Boy" was deeply moving--an experience beyond words.
Price is better live than on a screen or through a loudspeaker; it is a joy to be in the same room with her, even when the sight lines are blocked. Her big, rich voice fills enormous spaces effortlessly with velvet tone -- but for all the opulence of sound, she handles words with a clarity and loving care that are rare among singers and almost unknown among sopranos. In the Concert Hall, small imperfections pass almost unnoticed and detract not at all from the impact of a performance. Perfection in a real human being (even a Leontyne Price) singing live in front of a real audience is not expected and would be rather boring if it happened too predictably. The effect may be somewhat different when seen and heard with the microscopic detail of close-up television -- but this is merely one of the distortions that the medium is introducing into America's perception of how music is performed.
The stage, decorated with gold-colored drapes, enormous (electric) candles, and potted flowers (mostly poinsettias) everywhere, might have looked like the setting for a nouveau riche wedding, if it had not been for the Christmas trees on the stage (three of them, with gift-wrapped packages presumably containing nothing) and the giant, abstract, silver-coated snowflakes hanging from the ceiling.
The live audience heard considerably more than the television audience will hear -- not only the excellent selections that will predictably be omitted, but first takes of several performances that had to be restarted (complete with a new entrance by the performers) because of technical problems. As it happened, flutist Paula Robison sounded better the second time she began a set of simple variations on a French carol (with guitarist Eliot Fisk), as did a group of six women from the chorus who sang "Silent Night" (also with Fisk) twice.
The chorus and the festival orchestra were splendid and very well directed in an interesting program, most of which will be edited out while various bits of atmosphere from the Kennedy Center's Christmas Festival (handbell ringers, visitors in the Grand Foyer) are edited in. A serious loss, if it is omitted, will be Daniel Pinkham's exquisite Christmas Cantata, which ranges from hushed wonder to dancing joy. Richard Wayne Dirksen's "Welcome All Wonders," a brilliant piece for virtuoso chorus, should be included--at least the cameras were quite busy while it was happening--but prospects seem dim for his splendidly vigorous "Hodie Christus Natus Est" for a cappella male chorus.
The program will be repeated Tuesday and Wednesday nights with soprano Marvis Martin (who may be the next Leontyne Price) and some changes in repertoire. It will be worth hearing, even without Price and definitely without the television cameras.