The San Diego choral ensemble Sacra/Profana launched its 10th season this past weekend with a pair of identical concerts, subtitled “A Retrospective Experience,” that touched on the successes of previous seasons and aspirations for the future. Saturday, November 3, 2018, at the University Christian Church in Hillcrest, Founding Director Krishan Oberoi and current Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta amicably shared the conducting duties as well as the narration of the journey that has brought the ensemble to its current stage.
While other San Diego choral groups have cultivated a clearly defined repertory, say, early music or challenging avant-garde works, Sacra/Profana has emphasized inclusion of a diverse repertory and collaboration with other arts organizations. Sacra/Profana’s program opened with “Entr’acte” from the musical Hunchback of Notre Dame, a 2014 collaboration between the choral ensemble, the La Jolla Playhouse, and the composer/librettist team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.
Both the text and musical style of “Entr’acte” allude to the poetry and musical solemnity of the Roman Catholic liturgy, but migrate to the happier shores of musical theater’s paradisium. Opening with that Requiem-sounding phrase “Libera me Domine de morte aeterna” (“Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death”) this anthem arrives at the decidedly terrestrial conclusion “Live in hope—never give up. Change will come some day.”
Menken’s harmonic palette wold have been recognized by Gabriel Fauré and Théodore DuBois, two of the most successful composers of French sacred music in the late 19th century, but Menken’s more relaxed, popular ballad melodic style is clearly his own, and Sacra/Profana’s bright, vibrant sonority gave Menken’s music the panache and billowy uplift it needed.
Oberoi’s own composition “Rivers and Roads,” originally a vocal duet for John Malashock’s dance company’s “Snakeskin”—another successful collaboration—blossomed into a sturdy choral work in Kenneth Martin’s four-part arrangement. Like Menken, Oberoi followed the more lively conventions of popular ballad style, propelled by a gentle, undulating piano accompaniment sensitively played by Adam Ferrara. Contemporary Venezuelan composer César Alejandro Carrillo’s arrangement of a traditional folksong, “Oiga, compae,” brought a light touch to the program, with its breezy, sentimental air and tongue-in-cheek humor: its protagonist continually laments that some bad guys have stolen his most precious possessions in order of importance to him: “my little donkey, my machete, my blanket, and my wife.” However, the composer was clever enough to conclude his piece with a jaunty, energetic fugue to show off his chops.
Three works fell nicely into the genre of the contemporary tonal motet: Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “The Guest,” Joshua Shank’s “A Grass-Green Pillow,” and Kenneth Martin’s “The beauty of a star.”
These motets demonstrated the choir’s major virtues, including tight sectional unity, a just balance among the sections, and a polished flexibility that communicated the nuances of each text. Although the lower voices displayed ingratiating warmth, the sopranos’ steely fortes—especially in Snider’s motet—assaulted our ears mercilessly. I know that some conductors of a cappella choirs believe that even a hint of soprano vibrato is more catastrophic than an advanced case of leprosy. But the former could temper cold, shrill voices in their highest range.
For the program’s second half, Acosta turned to arrangements from the rich vein of American popular music, including the Billy Steinber and Tom Kelly song “True Colors” made famous by Cyndi Lauper, Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and the Carole King standard “Way Over Yonder.” Stylish arrangements by Shawn Kirchner of the American folk hymn “Bright Morning Stars” and the spiritual “Unclouded Day” followed, suggesting the kind of programming a successful high school choir might put together, although Kirchner’s setting of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Tu Voz” gave the audience something to think about in the second half, rather than just hum along.
What this retrospective concert omitted from Sacra/Profana’s last ten years of achievement was any indication that the choir was committed to serious choral repertory of scope and challenge, e.g. Ernst Krenek’s “Lamentatio Jeremaie Prophetae” and Benjamin Britten’s “Sacred and Profane: Eight Medieval Lyrics,” both performed earlier this year, or David Lang’s ground-breaking and Pulitzer Prize winning The Little Match Girl Passion, which Oberoi bravely presented in the early days of Sacra/Profana.
Closing this Sacra/Profana program with Mark Hayes’ unremarkable arrangement of two of Richard Rodgers’ popular hymns of saccharine 1950s uplift—“You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Climb Every Mountain” does not bode well for the vision of this organization.
The San Diego organization Sacra/Profana presented performances of this concert, “Retro X, A Retrospective eXperience,” on November 2 & 3, 2018, in different venues. The November 3rd concert at Hillcrest’s University Christian Church was attended for review purposes.