In his conducting debut with SACRA/PROFANA at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma on Friday (October 30), Associate Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta showed that he has the craft and temperament to bring out the best from this young, professional chorus. In his short tenure he has already cultivated a warmer, richer tonal palette and shored up some of the choir’s weaknesses, especially in the men’s sections.
Krishan Oberoi founded SACRA/PROFANA in 2009, and under his visionary direction the ensemble has made its mark on the local scene by tackling challenging new choral works and proving its flexibility, singing lighter fare with the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops and providing choral credibility to a new musical at the La Jolla Playhouse. While Oberoi has taken leave of his choral responsibilities here in San Diego to pursue an additional degree at Boston University, Acosta is leading SACRA/PROFANA.
Hitching his star to the Halloween weekend, Acosta titled Friday’s program “Chant Macabre,” filling the evening with songs about ghost stories, death, and other elegiac topics.
The more contemporary works stood out: a propulsive, slightly urgent account of Morten Lauridsen’s gem “O Nata Lux,” the soaring lines and harmonic surprises of Frank Tichelli’s “There Will Be Rest,” and John Tavener’s transcendent “Song for Athene.” The latter work gained unusual popular status when it was sung at the globally telecast funeral for Britain’s Princess Diana, and Acosta deftly constructed its steady crescendo into an overwhelming vocal and emotional climax. Having the choristers surround the audience in a wide semi-circle added to the dramatic impact of this anthem that has its roots in the solemn rituals of Orthodox Christianity.
A pleasant discovery on the program was William Schuman’s “Carols of Death” based on texts by Walt Whitman. Given the emotional understatement of Schuman’s spare neo-classical idiom, Acosta wisely stressed articulate declamation of Whitman’s probing poetry to brighten Schuman’s austere textures. Throughout the concert, the unity within sections and the overall choral discipline gave SACRA/PROFANA a confident focus it has sometimes lacked in performance.
Jon Washburn’s ingratiating arrangement of the Mexican folk song “La Llorona,” the tale of a passionate spectral lover on the prowl, raised the emotional temperature of the room after Schuman’s cool set, and the dark intensity of SACRA/PROFANA’s altos made this work particularly compelling.
For Anglophiles, Acosta’s program offered ample portions of that tradition, opening the program with Lauragrace Havens’ prim account of Purcell’s aria “When I Am Laid in Earth” followed by the choir’s processional “With Drooping Wings,” also from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. To this pair Acosta added Robert Pearsall’s retrospective motet “Lay a Garland,” Herbert Howells’ “I Heard a Voice from Heaven” (taken from his Requiem), two works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the Tavener piece already mentioned.
Although Acosta clearly exhibited stylish sympathy for these slow, mildly contrapuntal anthems, we heard too many similar choral styles on his program. In terms of selecting pieces of contrasting tempos, he ran the gamut of largo to adagio. It was refreshing to hear an African-American spiritual, but instead of Roy Ringwald’s slow, stately arrangement of “Deep River,” perhaps something lively from that tradition, say, “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” would have brought out other colors and emotions from the choir. It would also have added wit, which is seldom overabundant on choral programs.