Mid-spring with Easter approaching is always a high season for choral performance. So I was programmed to venture out to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach Saturday (April 12) to hear San Diego Pro Arte Voices, the new kid on the block in San Diego’s bustling choral scene.
In addition to this choir’s highly disciplined, vibrant musical identity, I was impressed by the scope of its repertory, from Renaissance and Baroque polyphony to the tight, modernist harmonies of Stephen Paulus and John Tavener. Typically, a chorus is identified with its leader, but this ensemble boasts two directors, Patrick Walders as Artistic Director and John Russell as Music Director.
I pray that these two musicians can continue their collaborative direction, because they complement each other in beneficial ways. As demonstrated in three different settings of the “Crucifixus” (the crucial portion of the “Credo” from the Mass) by Antonio Lotti, Walders favored dramatic crescendos that brought harmonic tensions to glorious fruition while keeping the metrical discipline tightly reined. In both Tavener’s “A Hymn to the Mother of God” and Paulus’ “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” Russell’s more supple, nurturing hand unlocked nuanced, warmer sonorities from this choir.
Walders opened with Henry Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer,” a bright, energetic account of that anthem that immediately erased from memory that typcial prissy, stilted British take on their sainted composer. Walders’ Purcell spent his time in pubs with youthful contemporaries, not sipping tea with elderly matrons.
As an acknowledgement of the upcoming Holy Week, five soloists from Pro Art Voices offered Robert White’s
“Lamentations of Jeremiah” for five voices. Flourishing a century before Purcell in pockets of English church life that still used Latin in worship, White cultivated a rich, dense polyphony that called to mind the mystical sacred style of the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria. The singers—sopranos Jennifer Paulino and Katie Walders, counter-tenor Erick Rarick, with Russell as tenor and Walders as bass—projected a clean, intense austerity appropriate to this penitential music, although I thought they did not delve sufficiently into the interpretive possibilities of these rich texts from Hebrew Scripture.
The Hausmann Quartet provided contrast on this Lenten program, offering two movements from J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue and two contemporary string works, György Kurtág’s “Moments Musicaux” and Philip Glass’s “Company.” Quicksilver, sometimes violent, changes of mood and texture executed with complete confidence in the Kurtág proved the alert prowess and refined timbre of this young string quartet. In the “Glass” etude, I was impressed that they discovered various emotional states in his predictable static textures.
Their approach to Bach, however, struck me as sadly dated, pursuing an endless legato that reluctantly phrased only when the composer supplied an actual rest in the score. Once thought to be a reverent approach to the Leipzig master, this style of Bach playing went out with 33 1/3 LP recordings.
In a stroke of astute spatial awareness, the Pro Arte Voices surrounded their audience in a single line along the perimeter of the St. Andrew’s sanctuary, closing the concert with Paulus’ haunting “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” a Holocaust memorial anthem. If this chorus can continue the depth of emotion and sonic richness they revealed in this piece, they could become San Diego’s premier choral entity.