(Christmas) hammin’ it up

Kristin Shafel Omiccioli | KC Metropolis

Kansas City ChristmasA trumpet duo called the Heartland Men’s Chorus concert to order Friday night, followed by chorus members placed throughout the aisles, on a sober Personent Hodie arrangement by Lara Hoggard. The final line, a strong unison of all voices, was majestic and beautifully set the tone of the first half, which included more traditional holiday selections. With a mixture of sacred and secular, old and new, familiar and perhaps not-so well known, Dustin Cates’s programming was a testament to the historical themes of the season—peace, togetherness, acceptance, good cheer—while striking me as rather timely messaging for today’s tumultuous world, too.

The first half showcased works that had some of the most complex polyphony, mixed meter, and counterpoint I’ve heard from HMC, including a set of Hovland’s The Glory of the Father (excerpt) and Powell’s The Word was God, Helvey’s trio of Christmas carols (“Fum, Fum, Fum,” “Coventry Carol,” and “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”), and selections from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. The chorus shined in its comfort zone during this half’s heartfelt “The Ground” from Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass and the lively African-American spiritual Child of God, which gave guest pianist Jan Willbanks the spotlight, rockin’ licks on the keys in a swinging blues style.

HMC included its Jewish members and friends in its holiday celebration with Knecht’s Shalom Aleikhem, featuring Max H. Brown in a committed, dignified solo introduction, and Alex Bency added a delicate touch with his cello part. On the second half, after a dramatic flourish on the piano by accompanist Lamar Sims, the HeartAches octet put an upbeat spin on Hanukkah songs—usually minor-keyed or phrygian—with “Boogie Woogie Hanukkah,” revealing a playful and acute sense of humor both musically and lyrically.

After intermission, HMC worked the Christmas ham (figuratively!) with a few recognizable standards (the jolly “We Need a Little Christmas” and a rock version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and several newer pop tunes, including the saccharine local holiday anthem “Christmas in Kansas City.” The second half of the night was replete with HMC’s signature camp, light choreography, and costuming. A troupe of choristers dressed as the reindeer for “Rudolph,” with literal translations of their names (Blitzen was blitzed, Comet had cleaning supplies, etc.), and the men whipped out their cell phones to accompany the Straight No Chaser tune “Text Me Merry Christmas.” Brandon Shelton was convincing as the sassy letter writer to Santa, unapologetic for his cheeky request in “I Want a Lumbersexual for Christmas.”

Many fine soloists from the ensemble were featured throughout the evening, on classics and pop songs alike. Mike Sigler, at first an unassuming presence on stage, brought forth a robust, arresting tenor on two pieces of the Britten set. Tone Stowers and Jason Taylor flavored their solos (on Jewel’s “Hands” and “Christmas in Kansas City,” respectively) with a melismatic R&B pop sound, while Terry W. Christensen and Rob Curry gave tender interpretations apropos to the timely sentiments in the lyrics of their solos (introductions to “Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Merry Everything,” respectively). Keith Widenkeller provided the solemn, gentle solo on this year’s “Ad Astra” tribute, “Auld Lang Syne,” as the chorus behind him linked arms as commonly practiced in Scotland.

The stand-out piece of the concert was undoubtedly “Marvelous Holiday Sweater,” which featured Adam Brown not only in a hearty solo part, but also in a light-up tie and matching jacket as he “emceed” a “fashion show” of the tackiest, most over-the-top sweaters imaginable. Closing the night was a bright rendition of Andy Beck’s  “Let There Be Peace,” led by soloist R. Elise Pointer who embellished this spiritual-like tune with enthusiasm that brought down the house.

Dustin Cates, now in his second year as HMC’s artistic director, has continued and expanded on HMC’s strong presence in the Kansas City arts scene. His arrangements (almost half the tunes on this program) cater to the chorus’s strengths while still challenging them. With local pride being at epic levels, Cates decided to stick with last year’s “Kansas City Christmas” theme once again, especially after finding the perfect item to exhibit as the centerpiece of the expectedly incredible set. An original Manneco crown, once an iconic part of downtown Kansas City during the holidays, sparkled above the chorus in all its authentic, regal glory.