Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Brass and Organ Christmas Spectacular’ Soars in Abbey Church

St. Norbert College Music Brass and Organ Christmas Spectacular program cover_1543847709438.jpg.jpg

Christmas cookies often are imaginative cutout figures of angels and stars and bells and such covered with colorful candy sprinkles.

Aurally, “Brass and Organ Christmas Spectacular” is akin to that – festive and bright – though of a respectful tone.

The concert by the St. Norbert College Music Department and friends is influenced by, and exists because of, its location.

In Northeastern Wisconsin, St. Norbert Abbey Church is a one-of-a-kind sound space. Music performed there takes on special qualities.

Sunday night, the 10th “Brass and Organ Christmas Spectacular” was presented with often impressive results, The concert was a sound treat.

Listening in the high-walled space is akin to sitting INSIDE the reverb area of an instrument such as a stand-up bass. Notes leap. Performing with no microphone, a brass instrument can easily fill the space, with a single, large note sounding like it is RIGHT THERE no matter where you are seated. It is a singular experience for around here.

And so “Brass and Organ Christmas Spectacular” exists – to celebrate the season and have some fun with making music with the individual qualities of instruments, including the human voice.

A skilled seven-piece brass choir led the program, often including the church’s top-quality organ. Familiar music dominated the selections, so the listening was sure-fire pleasing.

Seven brass instruments, with organ, become a powerful force in the abbey church space. Notes fly. Sound seems to magnify, as do little mistakes (not that there were many).

Perhaps the “hit” of the night was a piece played by a handbell choir. Part of that was how instruments were used in “He is Born” by arranger Cynthia Dobrinski. Handbells have a golden, soft quality in the first place. The arrangement included the largest bells not only played by hand but tapped with a soft-head mallet to bring new richness to the instrument. The effect was lustrous.

A flute choir brought other softly rich hues to the evening’s “portraiture.”

The choice of material for a 13-voice choir was fully aware of how the space can enhance songs. “Lux Aurumque” floated, with a gentle echo reverb returning to create a harmonizing effect. Portions of “The Holly and the Ivy” sounded like handbells for voice.

One section by the Brass Choir consisted of five popular pieces arranged by Luther Henderson that got me thinking. Had Henderson been able to hear how sound plays in the abbey church as he was writing his arrangements, would he have tinkered with a sound of one instrument here and a few notes of another instrument there? Another question was, Can music be written specifically for the qualities and traits of a space?

Admission to the concert was free, with donations suggested for the support of the Norbert “Nubbie” Ecker Chamber Music Endowment Fund. Ecker taught at St. Norbert College when the music department was small in comparison with today, when the versatile department can create the likable likes of “Brass and Organ Christmas Spectacular.”



Part I

Brass Quintet and Organ: Trumpet – Jamie Waroff, Michael Henckel, Marty Robinson; French horn – Philip Klickman, Andrew Parks; tenor trombone – Andrew Zipperer; bass trombone – Eric High; organ – Devin Atteln

   “O Come All Ye Faithful”/“Joy to the World” – arranged by Howard Cable

   “O Holy Night” – arranged by Arthur Frankenpohl

   “Coventry Carol” – arranged by Don Gillis

   “The Holy and the Ivy” – arranged by Howard Cable

   “Westminster Carol” – arranged by Don Gillis

Part II

St. Norbert College Flute Choir: Director – Kortney James; flute – Lauren Gentine, Megan Lau, Kylie Klenke, Rylie Kramer, Carly Hartenberger, Ingrid Timm, Paige Bonner, Nate Ortiz, Ruby Castillo; alto flute – James Viall III; bass flute – Sarah Hanna

   “A Child is Born” – Thad Jones, arranged by Michael Annicchiarico

   “Ukrainian Bell Carol” – Alexandra Molnar-Suhajda

Part III

Organ – Devin Atteln

   “Variations sur ‘In dulci jubilo’” – Denis Bédard

Part IV

Brass Quintet

   “The Christmas Song” – arranged by Luther Henderson

   “Ding Dong! Merrily on High” – arranged by Luther Henderson

   “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” – arranged by Luther Henderson

   “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – arranged by Luther Henderson

   “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – arranged by Luther Henderson

Part V

St. Norbert College Handbell Choir: Director – Philip Klickman; choir – Bryce Daniels, Erin Hanke, Sarah Hanna, Noah Kuchta, Megan Lau, Natalie Rennhack, Emily Rosenfeldt, Jonathan Tesch

   “He is Born” – arranged by Cynthia Dobrinski

   “Festival Peal on ‘Adeste Fideles’” – Douglas E. Wagner

Part VI

St. Norbert Abbey Singers: Director: Fr. Michael Frisch; soprano – Elizabeth Dannecker, Savanna Meo, Emily Rosenfelt; alto – Sarah Jensen, Kiera Matthews, Annika Osell; tenor – John Dicks, Zac Dickhut, Nick Surprise; bass – Jack Kent, Gus Mahner, Nathan Ortiz, Christopher Zelinski

   “Lux Aurumque” – Eric Whitacre

   “Still, Still, Still” – arranged by Norman Luboff

   “The Holy and the Ivy” – arranged by Ola Gjeil

Part VII

Brass Choir and Organ

   “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” – arranged by Arthur Frackenpohl

   “O Little Town of Bethlehem”/“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – arranged by Howard Cable

   “Carol of the Bells” – arranged by Arthur Frackenpohl

   “Silent Night” – arranged by Arthur Frackenpohl

   “Hallelujah Chorus” – George Frideric Handel, arranged by W.F. Mills

   “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – arranged by Arthur Frackenpohl


THE VENUE: St. Norbert Abbey Church is known for its setting and its acoustics, which can be both tricky and awesome. The church was built in 1956-1959 with sound in mind. The abbey houses Norbertine Order priests, who at the time of the construction sang the entire liturgy. A reverberant space was necessary so the liturgy could “be carried out in great and proper splendor,” according to a historical booklet. A geometrically configured ceiling enhances the reverberance, which is softened somewhat with acoustical plaster. The nave walls of the clear story are of porous travertine marble. The lower regions are of highly polished marble. Accordion-style pleats on the side chapel walls help the sound to reverberate in all directions. Floors are of slate or highly polished marble. The church houses a 2,778-pipe organ designed by the noted firm of Casavant Freres of Canada. The architecture is influenced by the Cistercian style of “elegant plainness.” It’s from Medieval times, with the building made of smooth, pale stone, with columns, pillars and windows and not much embellishment. Color arrives in the church through 18 stained-glass windows, including a massive one in the west vestibule. The interior footprint of the church is 168 by 95 feet.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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