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CityMusic Cleveland decks the halls with classics and spirituals (review)
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nowhere is it written that performers are required to acknowledge the holiday season with medleys of carols and wintry fare. So what's a chamber orchestra to do as the temperature dips and lights and candles are lit? CityMusic Cleveland has come up with a nifty solution for its free concerts this week around Northeast Ohio: devote most of the program to beloved works by Mozart and Mendelssohn and then let the Mt. Zion Choir loose in spirituals and holiday tunes.

The first concert in the series Wednesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights drew a capacity audience, which sat raptly during the classical portion of the program and cheered when the Mt. Zion singers swayed and savored the melodies at their beckon.

The choir isn't large -- 29 singers are listed in the program -- but director "Al" Crump Madison has discovered ways to draw focused and penetrating sounds from the voices. At Wednesday's performance, the choristers also sang with searing passion, especially soprano Pat Harris, who sent phrases soaring in many directions in "Mary Had a Baby" and "Now Behold the Lamb" (the latter with an unidentified -- and very fine -- tenor).

CityMusic, playing the holiday pieces in orchestrations by one of its members, violist Charles Krenner, provided solid foundations for the chorus. Kirk Franklin's arrangement of "Silent Night" may have done more to obscure the famous tune than dress it up imaginatively, but Quincy Jones' zesty take on the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" ended the night on rousing series of notes, with Harris again coming close to raising the church's roof.

The orchestra's guest conductor this week is Stefan Willich, a Berlin-based physician who founded the World Doctors Orchestra in 2007 (and brought the ensemble to Severance Hall in 2009). In Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro" and Oboe Concerto, K. 314, he had the violins and violas stand, for no discernible reason. But Mozart sounded as vital and expressive as ever as treated by the CityMusic players. The overture was precise and mirthful, with the orchestra functioning like a well-oiled machine.

The soloist in the concerto was the group's principal oboe, Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew, who imbued the music with utmost grace and warmth. She managed the sprightly material as deftly as she shaped lyrical lines, and the cadenzas (by John Mack, the late principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra) were prime opportunities to demonstrate her skills as acrobat and poet.

Willich partnered sensitively in the concerto and presided over a performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") that contained a handful of interpretive surprises. The conductor kept tight reins on the score, relishing the buoyant spirits and haunting phrases.

But he also showed a predilection for tempo fluctuations and dynamic contrasts that were mannered, rather than organic. Even so, the musicians granted their guest's every wish, playing with the crisp and elastic purpose that has become CityMusic tradition.