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Panuccio's "O Holy Night" Sublime at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 22, 2013 - 7:53:34 PM in reviews_2013

L to R: Matthew Umphreys, Marco Panuccio and Jesse Leong

“Marco and friends” might describe tenor Marco Panuccio’s “O Holy Night: An Evening of Holiday Song” Friday night at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, final stop on a seven-city tour, which also included Waco, Texas, Kennett Square, Easton and Reading, Pennsylvania, Blacksburg, Virginia and Augusta, Georgia.

Joining Panuccio were pianist Matthew Umphreys, organist Blake Calahan and conductor Jesse Leong leading a 17-piece chamber orchestra. It was Leong’s professional conducting debut.

There were some other firsts on the program: the world premiere of composer Richard Arnest’s “Beata es,” new arrangements by Julie Spangler, and a surprise for those who know him as managing director of Cincinnati Opera, a performance by Christopher Milligan in duet with Panuccio.

In addition to favorites heard on previous editions of “O Holy Night” (inaugurated in December, 2010 with a concert in Cincinnati), there were works by Benjamin Britten, Ennio Morricone and Arvo Pärt. Heard throughout the program and from different vantage points in the Cathedral were Gregorian chants by sopranos Sarah Dorff-Schmid and Amanda Heisler and countertenor Michael Match. There were also sing-alongs for the audience (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night,” both arranged by Spangler.)

Panuccio opened, as on previous concerts, with excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah.” There was tenderness on “Comfort ye,” urgency on “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,” and joy in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” making for a meaningful and thoroughly musical presentation.

Composed specifically for Panuccio, Arnest’s “Beata es” (“Blessed are thou”) made a lovely impression. High-lying for the voice and with a spoken “Hail Mary” at the end, it underscored the concert’s Marian sub-theme. Both halves of the concert closed with settings of “Ave Maria,” each sung with surpassing beauty by Panuccio. The first was set to Jules Massenet’s Méditation from “Thaïs” and featured a gorgeous violin solo by Lu Li. The second, which closed the concert, utilized the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Panuccio floated an ethereal high note at the end, sealing the verses with deeply felt lyricism.

Milligan, a voice major at Miami University before he made a career switch to arts administration, stepped to the front of the nave to join Panuccio in César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.” Their blended voices filled the church with beauty (and made us wish to hear Milligan sing more often). Cathedral organist Calahan followed with a thrilling Toccata on “Angels We Have Heard on High” by Matthew H. Corl.

Another sub-theme of the concert was Benjamin Britten (Panuccio’s favorite composer, he said). In honor of the 2013 Britten centennial, Panuccio sang his arrangement of balladeer John Jacob Niles’ folk-derived “I Wonder as I Wander.” Touchingly delivered, this moving piece included meditative interludes by Umphreys on piano. Panuccio took the baton himself to conduct Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” an affecting wash of strings punctuated by Leong on tubular bell.

“Gabriel’s Oboe” (Morricone) from the 1986 film “The Mission,” made a splendid addition to the 2013 edition of “O Holy Night.” Oboist Hannah Shoopman gave it a stirring performance, followed, fittingly, by Spangler’s arrangement of the Basque carol “Gabriel’s Message,” where Panuccio was joined in the nave by Dorff-Schmid, Heisler and Match.

Panuccio’s “O Holy Night” would not be the same without David Foster’s “Thankful” and John Kander’s “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou.” The former, dedicated to Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor (who turned 110 in November), was a welcome outpouring of thanks, accompanied by Umphreys on piano. Kander’s “Letter” occupied a special place on the program, with its message of love from a Civil War soldier to his wife, whom he will never see again. Panuccio gave it deep meaning and flawless diction. Fittingly, and with heartfelt expression, he followed it with the American carol “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” also written from the standpoint of a soldier at the front.

Likewise, “O Holy Night” would not be the same without Adolphe Adam’s great carol of the same name, which Panuccio delivered with soaring vocalism.

Encores included another Panuccio favorite, Virgil Thomson’s “A Prayer to St. Catherine” and the popular “Ave Maria” by Russian guitarist/composer Vladimir Vavilov*, which resounded through the Cathedral, complete with organ, choristers and Cathedral bells.

*also known as Caccini's “Ave Maria.” Vavilov originally inscribed it “Anonymous,” but it was falsely ascribed to baroque composer Giulio Caccini after Vavilov's death.