Sarasota Herald-Tribune Review Jan 19, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW: Choral Artists celebrate 90 years of Sondheim
By Jay Handelman

Ann Morrison, a Broadway veteran, was among the soloists in the Choral Artists of Sarasota’s “Celebrating Sondheim” concert

Under the leadership of Joseph Holt, the Choral Artists of Sarasota has been branching out stylistically, with a greater variety of music featured in its performances.

On Saturday at Riverview Performing Arts Center, the ensemble, joined by several soloists, presented a two-hour salute to the Broadway groundbreaker Stephen Sondheim with mixed but often joyous results.

To be fair, I’m not a big fan of choral interpretations of Broadway songs that were written for individuals or duets playing clear characters, or for classical artists crossing over into showtune territory. There’s a formality in that kind of singing that often can’t quite connect with the stories being told in the songs. The notes may sound beautiful, but the songs don’t have the emotional impact they require.

And Sondheim’s songs, in particular, are all about stories and characters and deep, complex emotions.

Holt and associate conductor Luis Gonzalez did lead the chorus through some beautiful sounds, including “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the combination of “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods” and the mesmerizing finale of “Sunday,” one of the most beautiful songs in the Sondheim canon, from “Sunday in the Park with George.”

But a song like “The Worst Pies in London” loses its life, character and humor without the specifics an individual can bring to it, no matter how nice it sounds with choral harmonies. And it is harder to appreciate the humorous lines in “Comedy Tonight.”

The program featured five soloists (including two members of the ensemble, soprano Michaela Ristaino and mezzo Amy Jo Connours) to augment the chorus and provide some of the character.

Hopefully all of them were taking notes while listening to and watching Ann Morrison, a veteran of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” performing a half dozen solos or group numbers. She’s an actress who sings (and a singer who can act), who goes for more than singing pretty notes. She focuses on the meaning and the character behind the words, and the musical notes carry her along.

She was delightfully daffy singing “By the Sea,” and funny as a nervous bride in “Not Getting Married.” She captured the mixed up feelings of a woman who feels worthless and empty inside in “Ah, But Underneath,” a song that was featured in a London production of “Follies.” You could also feel the bitterness and bile boiling up through her version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.”

Most impressive was her take on “Loving You” from Passion, part of a trio of songs that expressed different attitudes about love, including “Not a Day Goes By” (sung by Connours) and “So Many People” by Ristaino. I had never heard them performed together, and the sound was stirring and surprising.

The female soloists were joined by tenor Ben Pattison and baritone Matthew Nall, who have terrific voices. Pattison is more a natural actor, bringing a bit more spirit to his songs, particularly their duets on “Agony” from “Into the Woods” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful” from “A Little Night Music.” Nall hit the notes and some of the feeling of “Marry Me a Little,” while Pattison put a lot of heart into his version of “Being Alive.”

I suspect the concert brought a lot of newcomers to the Choral Artists, Sondheim fans who delighted in every note and might try the ensemble again. While I might prefer a more theatrical style of performance, the chorus provided an opportunity to discover new notes and meanings in Sondheim’s complex, rich and rewarding musical creations.