After nearly three decades, a final ‘Feast of Carols’ for Mendelssohn Club director

by Peter Crimmins, Newsworks, 12/12/2014

Christmas decorations go up immediately after Thanksgiving, but, for many, the season does not really start until it sounds like Christmas.

“For a lot of people, that’s true,” said Alan Harler, artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club, one of the oldest choirs in America at 140 years. “It feels like it’s one of the most important programs we do in terms of bringing our audience closer to us — engaging the audience.”

The club’s “Feast of Carols” concert, held every year in the ornate St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, was created by Harler when came on board 28 years ago. He normally programs sacred and secular choral music – both the familiar and the obscure – based on a particular theme.

This year, his final season with the club, he’s playing loose. “I decided to be selfish and just do my favorites,” said Harler.

The program includes Rachmaninoff, Arvo Part, and the “Slava” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Harler said he likes the way Russian and Eastern European music fills in the ornately carved rafters of St. Paul’s.

“The ‘Slava’ will start with 120 singers encircling the audience,” said Harler. “With the brass quintet and Michael Stairs on organ — that will be as it was 28 years ago.”

Harler, who will retire from the Mendelssohn Club at the end of the season, recalled the beginning of his association with the organization. He was the head of choral music at Temple University in 1986 when the Mendelssohn Club asked him to take over the group, which had 60 voices and relied mostly on standard repertoire. Harler doubled the number of singers and ambitiously commissioned new choral premieres by modern composers.

“It took several years for that to happen. There was resistance, especially to the more avant-garde pieces,” said Harler. “Gradually people got the idea of how exciting it was to be on the front edge of the new possibilities for choral music in the 21st century. It sounds grandiose, but we were trying to find something that would change the character of a choral concert.”

Under Harler, the Mendelssohn Club commissioned new work by Jennifer Higdon, David Lang, Donald St. Pierre, Pauline Oliveros, and, mostly recently, Julia Wolfe, whose 2013 “Anthracite Fields” was inspired by Pennsylvania coal miners.

The choir presented new music in new ways. To premiere Lang’s “Battle Hymns,” the Mendelssohn Club teamed up with the Leah Stein Dance Company at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia. The concert and dance required some audience members to pick up their seats, in the middle of the performance, and move across the space.

“Many people in the audience commented that they were brought into the piece by the fact that they had to move. It made them feel part of it,” said Harler.

The cub has experimented with asking the audience to create ambient rain sound by snapping their fingers, as well as arranging the singers to encircle the audience.

The simplest way to engage an audience, Harler admits, is to have them sing along. “Feast of Carols” includes several familiar numbers that the audience will be invited to chime in on.

“It was unusual for us when we started with audience engagement,” said Harler. “Now, of course, people are taking it seriously, and a lot of groups are doing this kind of thing. But they weren’t when we started.”

After this season, Harler will step down as artistic director to pursue other interests. At 74, he no longer has the energy to keep the club at the level where it should be. He says it’s time for new, fresh leadership.

The Mendelssohn Club is one of the go-to choirs for the Philadelphia Orchestra. After this weekend’s “Feast of Carols,” the singers will gear up for a three-day gig with the orchestra for another annual holiday tradition, “The Glorious Sounds of Christmas.”

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