Long before Baroque oratorio, ballet’s Sugar Plum Fairy, and Rudolph defined our Christmas musical celebrations, the
Christian Church cultivated an extensive choral tradition that probed the season’s profounder mysteries. Saturday (Dec. 13) at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Pacific Beach, Bach Collegium San Diego offered a resplendent concert of Gregorian chant and Renaissance motets for Advent and Christmas that revealed the depth and complexity of this rich tradition.
If this is rarely acknowledged, perhaps our casual view of western music history had succumbed to a pat Darwinian schema, wherein everything moves on a historical timeline from simple to complex. In music, however, sometimes the exact opposite trajectory applies. For example, Berlioz’ strapping Romantic oratorio L’Enfance du Christ easily wins the “simple” accolade compared to, say, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s 12-voice Magnificat Sexti Toni or Thomas Tallis’ expansive antiphon “Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater,” which the Bach Collegium under the direction of Ruben Valenzuela sang back to back with compelling force and insight at St. Brigid’s.
Valenzuela’s musical journey started aptly with the traditional Advent chant “Rorate caeli de super,” sung by his 16 singers from the church’s rear gallery, from which the choir’s crystal phrases landed gently on the audience seated below. (The translation of the Latin text begins: “Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.”) I was taken by the exuberant counterpoint of Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero’s motet “Canite tuba in Sion,” sung in front of the main altar with discrete doubling on chamber organ executed by Michael Sponseller.
From his singers Valenzuela ecouraged explosive accents on key words of the text and pressed insistent crescendos into cadence points, allowing the tension to dissolve quickly upon resolution. In spirited motets such as Guerrero’s and Palestrina’s eight-voice “Surge illuminare Jerusalem,” this approach produced a more dramatic interpretation than the typical restrained, unemotional purity that large college choirs imagine Renaissance music calls for.
Even a motet such as Jean Mouton’s “Neciens mater virgo virum” with less angular lines—although all eight voices are strictly canonic—benefitted from Valenzuela’s more muscular approach. Although the choir sang this motet in a circle around the altar, the church’s favorable acoustic conveyed their deftly blended voices evenly throughout the room. Because male voices dominate this choir—only the four sopranos and one alto are female singers—its sonority tended to be dark and burnished, although the bright and highly unified sopranos added a steely crown to this virile sound.
I thought the choir’s Victoria Magnificat made the strongest impression of the evening, with two different solo quartets providing welcome textural contrast and vital animation in the work’s more complex and dramatic sections. Although the Tallis “Gaude Gloriosa” offered several exciting, highly dramatic moments, on occasion other tricky sections of this lengthy antiphon threatened the ensemble’s cohesion. Was it just a coincidence that the most dangerous moment happened when the text was describing “the perpetual torments of hell”?
Valenzuela featured only the women’s voices in the Christmas Introit chant “Puer natus est,” allowing their brilliant voices to fill the church with bell-like intensity. In his sole accomodation to familiar repertory, Valenzuela included Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” a motet nearly every parish choir has essayed. Few, I doubt, have achieved the breadth and tonal allure of this ensemble.
Sponseller offered several short organ solos from the 16th century on the chamber organ, although only Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s early Baroque chorale prelude “Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn” added a distinctive contrast to the choral music.
Considering that Valenzuela and his Bach Collegium San Diego presented three performances of Handel’s complete Messiah the previous weekend, this banquet of demanding Renaissance repertory was an exceptionally generous contribution to the season. Bravo!