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In the performing arts arena, the Christmas season comes around awash with predictability. Ballet companies revive Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker; theater companies devise yet another version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and choral groups either slice and dice poor Handel or offer cheerful potpourri concerts of holiday music that audiences love.

Juan Carlos Acosta [photo courtesy of Sacra/Profana]

In early December, Sacra/Profana Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta covered himself with glory conducting San Diego Opera’s compelling production of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914—a stellar, far from the seasonal beaten path opus that involved some of the Sacra/Profana singers. This past weekend, he returned with all of Sacra/Profana in a holiday concert that smartly exceeded the expectations of traditional holiday programming.

Acosta’s formula could not have been simpler: give the audience titles and texts it knows and loves in choral settings that take them to rewardingly different territory. Saunder Choi’s program-opening “Angels We Have Heard on High” set the standard with exceptional panache. Choi opens with the men quoting an aptly mystical Gregorian chant over a quiet, low-pitched hum. Soon the men develop a hypnotic ostinato, and the women reveal Choi’s goal, a cool but reverent jazz reinvention of the cheery French carol. Sacra/Profana’s enviable discipline and these young, sweetly blended voices gave Choi’s work everything it needed to soar.

Composer Elaine Hagenberg took several stanzas of the beloved Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and set them with new, even more haunting modal melodies than the traditional tune, adding a suave cello line that reminded me of Pablo Casals’ account of that lovely Catalan “Carol of the Birds” he often played in concert. Acosta and Sacra/Profana crafted Hagenberg’s dynamic shadings eloquently, and Cliff Thrasher’s subtle cello accompaniment glowed serenely beneath the voices.

Although Thomas Luis de Victoria’s impeccable “O Magnum Mysterium” finds its way into many a Christmas concert, Acosta used this Renaissance motet to set up Ola Gjeilo’s “Serenity,” a marvelous contemporary setting of the same Latin text. In place of Victoria’s layered chaste arcs of melody, Gjeilo lingers over each Latin syllable, each radiantly clad in slowly changing, shimmering harmonic clusters that Sacra/Profana gently floated in the flattering acoustic of the First Unitarian Universalist Church’s worship space. What cellist Thrasher did for the Hagenberg work he repeated in Gjeilo’s piece with even greater effect, sinuously weaving together the composer’s discrete chordal columns.

Fahad Siadat, a new composer to me, asked probing questions in his impeccably structured, probing anthem “Who Is This Boy?” Gliding through close harmonies that refused to resolve, Siadat appeared to expand on that cryptic aside in the Gospel of Luke’s Nativity narrative that noted how Jesus’ mother pondered in her heart the shepherds’ accounts of their angelic visions.

That omnipresent Los Angeles composer Shawn Kirchner also went to the Gospel of Luke for his choral offering “A Sign Opposed,” taking Simeon’s prophecy that Mary’s child is “destined for the the fall and the rising of many.” Kirchner’s denser harmonic web with its quickly changing, kaleidoscopic movement skillfully developed the darker undertones of this Biblical text. Kirchner was also represented on the program with his rousing arrangement of the familiar “Pat-a-pan” carol that put both the choral lines and the piano accompaniment at the extreme edges of their range. At the piano, Adam Ferrara added crisp, decisive delineation that adroitly framed the piece.

In Kim André Arnesen’s “His Light in Us,” Rebecca Ung’s beautifully focused solo captured the earnest aspiration of this devotional ballad, written for the St. Olaf College Choir. In spite of Arnesen’s mellifluous themes, I found his style blandly conventional, although I suppose a kinder interpretation would be to see this work as a retro tribute to the choir’s salad days under F. Melius Christiansen and his son Olaf. “Polar Eufori,” a new work by Arnesen, also failed to persuade me. Based on a poem by Sigri Sandberg about snow-covered Norwegian landscapes, without reading the text in hand, this soundscape could have been an Apple commercial.

No choral program featuring contemporary composers would be complete without a nod to Eric Whitacre, and his concise “Glow” on a wintry poem by Edward Esch accomplished with sophisticated ease what Arnesen was laboring over in “Polar Eufori.” Acosta’s charmingly eclectic program also included a quintet of voices doing a smashing cover of Pentatonix’s clever remix of “Little Drummer Boy” (Jonathan Gonzales provided the vocalized percussion); James McKelvy’s metrical magic in “Deck the Halls in 7/8,” and Paul Ayres’ “Santa Claus is comin’ to town,” a lark that grows into a jolly but shrewdly constructed fugue.

I left the concert with only one question. “Could anyone ask for more?”

This concert by Sacra/Profana was presented at Christ Lutheran Church in Pacific Beach on December 14, 2018, and at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego in Hillcrest on December 16. The December 16 concert was attended for this review.

Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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