When it comes to creating ceremony and ritual, our British cousins have the corner on that franchise. For example, to cash in on the nostalgia for choral music at this time of the year, in the last century American choral conductors came up with the Christmas Messiah, performing only the first third of Handel’s singular oratorio and tacking on the “Hallelujah” as a grand finale.
With apologies to my Mexican-American friends, this chopped-down oratorio could be called the low-rider Messiah.
But in England at the close of World War I, the Dean of King’s College Cambridge devised a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a thoughtfully organized collage of Biblical readings, choral anthems, and carols sung by the choir and congregation that set forth the traditional Nativity story with a modicum of charm and a minimum of didacticism.
In more recent times, variations on this British import of “lessons and carols” have become popular in North America, and this last weekend (December 18 & 19), San Diego Pro Arte Voices Music Director Patrick Walders staged his adaptation of the King’s College tradition, An Evening of Readings and Carols. Among the advantages of this format are its graceful, dignified pace and the opportunity for audience members to join in the massed singing of familiar carols. Arguably, the format’s downside is its proximity to Christian worship, which some choral aficionados could find uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, the caliber of the San Diego Pro Arte Voices and the welcoming tone of the Rev. Dr. Simon Mainwaring, rector of St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach, Saturday’s host of the event, made An Evening of Readings and Carols a necessary stop on this December’s musical pilgrimage.
Choosing choral works by British composers from the earlier portion of the 20th century, Walders saluted the birthplace of “lessons and carols.” Edward Elgar’s “The Snow” for women’s voices, a mellifluous choral art song flushed with ample Edwardian pomp and confidence, showed off the ensemble’s bold, gleaming soprano section. (Is there a more brilliantly polished choral soprano section in the County?) Herbert Howells “Long, Long Ago” allowed the burnished men’s voices to place a velvet sonic cushion beneath the trebles, confidently propelling the composer’s impetuous dynamic mood swings. And Peter Warlock’s early composition “Benedicamus Domino” jauntily dismissed his predecessors’ prim piety with robust declamation and rowdy tempos, carried out with meticulous glee by the Pro Arte Voices under Walders’ suave direction. The rhythmic and harmonic sophistication of William Walton’s 1970 “All This Time” made David Willcocks’ arrangement of the Basque carol “The Infant King” sound plodding and conventional by comparison.
In spite of Walders’ earnest efforts, Benjamin Britten’s antiphonally constructed “A Hymn to the Virgen” seemed overly stark, even emotionally pallid. In contrast, Walders’ own arrangement of the haunting “Coventry Carol” invited his singers to boldly embody the carol’s frightening drama—Herod’s massacre of the innocent children and the mourning by the mothers. Walders surrounded this dramatic icon with a choral simulation of gently tolling church bells. I recalled this work from Walders’ inaugural Evening of Readings and Carols last December and found it even more poignant on second hearing.
Walders and his sterling ensemble were aided by organist Jared Jacobsen, whose stirring accompaniment of the hymns and carols performed with the audience set a high musical standard for a practice that is too often merely perfunctory. Although the brass quintet sounded under-rehearsed, they added contrasting color to the program and joined with Jacobsen in a vigorous postlude: Eugene Gigout’s “Grand Choeur Dialogue,” in an arrangement by John Kuzma.
This genre of Christmas program almost requires the benediction of a hushed a cappella version of “Silent Night,” but the practice took on added warmth as the Pro Art Vocies surrounded the audience in a large circle to float this gentle carol over the listeners seated in their midst.
The San Diego Pro Arte Voices presented this season’s An Evening of Readings and Carols at Village Community Presbyterian Church in Rancho Santa Fe on December 18, 2015, and at St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea in San Diego on December 19, 2015. This organization’s next concert “Beginning to End” featuring works by Aaron Copland and Heinrich Schütz is slated for March 18 & 19, 2016.