As San Diego’s annual December choral marathon entered its final days, Patrick Walders’ San DiegoPro Arte Voices presented its seasonal offering in an evening of readings and carols on Saturday (December 20) at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea Church in Pacific Beach. One of the area’s newer professional choirs, the 34 singers of Pro Arte Voices sport a colorful, pulsing sonority that manages to be simultaneously highly polished and dangerously athletic.
Artistic Director Walders and his cohort John Russell put this choir together for a summer institute in 2013, and from Saturday’s performance, the ensemble proved tightly focused, disciplined and assured. Favoring 20th-century British music on this concert, Walders opened with Andrew Carter’s rousing but conventional seasonal touchstone “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but quickly shifted to more challenging fare by Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies and Peter Warlock.
Too many American conductors cast Britten’s cathedral music in an overly contained devotional straightjacket, so I was delighted that Walders chose vibrant colors and muscular declamation for his interpretation of the macaronic anthem “A Hymn to the Virgin.” This approach made the halo-like echoes of the vocal quartet, singing from the back of the church nave, even more compelling.
With its unpredictable asymmetical rhythms, close modal harmonies, and constantly changing textures, Peter Maxwell Davies’ daunting motet “Alleluia, Pro Virgine Maria” was entrusted to a solo quartet from Pro Arte Voices. Although these singers suavely met Davies’ many challenges, I hope in the future to hear the whole chorus take up this work to unleash its full power. Davies’ motet struck me as the evening’s most moving and rewarding offering.
Before Warlock started composing music, he wrote music criticism under his given name, Philip Heseltine. Perhaps his first calling predisposes me to his music, but his motet “Benedicamus Domino” easily wins over listeners with brisk lines that cavort with adolescent fervor and smart harmonies that rarely offend.
Walders’ own arrangement of the “Coventry Carol,” that rare medieval song that recounts King Herod’s slaughter of the young children, gave most of the music to the women’s voices, representing the wailing, distraught mothers, while the men’s voices gruffly depicted Herod’s treachery as described in the Gospel of Matthew. What made this arrangement endearing was the way Walders kept pulling the carol’s minor mode tonality into delicate major cadences. Will Todd’s “My Lord Has Come,” which the chorus sang in circular formation from the rear of the nave, bustled with neo-Victorian exuberance, but did not do much to escape the conventions of this genre.
From the more traditional seasonal repertory, Pro Arte Voices exploited a deft range of dynamic contrasts to make Tomas Luis de Victoria’s motet “Ave Maria” glow with intensity, and three different setting of the German carol “In dulci jubilo” complemented the lively Vincent Luebeck organ variations on that tune played with crisp authority by organist and Pro Arte Voices accompanist Martin Green.Most of the music heard on this program can be found on the Pro Arte Voices newly released CD “Fair and Bright” (www.sdproartevoices.com). With the proliferation of eager choral ensembles dotting the San Diego cultural landscape, it will be interesting to see what role Pro Arte Voices shapes for itself.