Listening to the 22-voice choir SACRA/PROFANA sing a concert of short a cappella works Friday (May 8) at the Mission Hills United Methodist Church required a quick re-tooling of expectations. In just this last week we have heard the 100-plus member San Diego Master Chorale perform with the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center two massive, blockbuster works of the choral repertory: the Verdi Requiem and Carl Orff’s Carmina burana.
With those pieces still ringing in my my ears, the gentle strains of John Dowland’s tender 17th-century love madrigal “Come Again, Sweet Love,” SACRA/PROFANA’s program-opener, sounded like they were coming from another planet. Fortunately, it did not take long to adjust to this choir’s clean, lithe sonority and nimble articulations elicited from founder and music director Krishan Oberoi.
His program, titled “Meditations on Mortality and Eternity,” focused on recent works and lesser-known pieces from the last century. Given Oberoi’s usual programming proclivities, no one was expecting a reprise of Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia.”
Two works from Ernst Krenek’s The Hour Glass revealed a more suavely melodic side of a composer usually remembered for the austerity of his serial compositions. Irving Fine’s deft but precious vocal settings of American poets never became part of the standard vocal repertory in the way that the vocal songs and cycles written by his contemporary Samuel Barber did. Two choral works by Fine, “O Know to End as to Begin” and “Have You Seen the Whilte Lily Grow?” written in a polished neo-madrigal style displayed more craft than depth, although Oberoi’s singers gave them a disciplined, well-tuned performance.
I was highly impressed by Dominick Argento’s setting of Shakespeare’s sonnet “When I Have Seen by Time’s Fell Hand Defaced,” a rugged and boldly structured piece that never lingered over the text but readily unleashed it’s deep emotional core. Although it remains a tonal work, the composer’s treatment of dissonance and unexpected cadential formulas showed a sophisticated harmonic sensibility, and his modernist chorale style suggested that of another Minnesota composer a generation younger than Argento, Stephen Paulus.
In two contemporary American composers, David Lang and Matthew McBane, it was possible to detect minimalist leanings. Clipped, repetitive phrases collect in gentle clusters to build up the texture of Lang’s “I Lie,” a fervid but chaste monologue in Yiddish for women’s voices. Soprano Elly Roseberry’s ardent solo captured well the anxious hope of the poem’s young female protagonist.
SACRA/PROFANA premiered McBane’s “On & On &” at last fall’s Carlsbad Music Festival, and a second hearing confirmed the strength and surprising emotional power of this piece. Although the terse John Muir text is little more than a koan, its mesmerizing repetitions suggest broader ontological significance.
Joshua Shank’s athletic, extroverted anthem “A Grass-Green Pillow” could be taken as a testament to the hearty Midwestern choral tradition that is his patrimony, and Shawn Kirchner’s arrangement of the American folk hymn “Angel Band” could not hide its Appalachian roots, especially since Oberoi’s altos sported a reedy vocal timbre to the tune whenever it appeared in their range. I was relieved that the whole choir did not mimic that unique Sacred Harp singing nasality, but the slight allusion to this vocal color did the trick.
For “something completely different” on this program, chorister Angel Mannion conducted the ensemble in an appropriately warm and dynamically plush account of Charles V. Stanford’s “Beati Quorum Via.” This Victorian motet did expose one of SACRA/PROFANA’s weak points, however: an underpowered bass section. Oberoi has assembled an otherwise well balanced ensemble with an unusually strong soprano section. A couple of seasoned middle-aged basses might not fit the visual profile of this fresh-faced Millennial choir, but they could add substance to undergird those soaring sopranos.
This program was given May 8, 2015, at Mission Hills United Methodist Church. SACRA/PROFANA’s next program is “Snakeskin,” a collaboration with Malashock Dance in partnership with UC San Diego Department of Theater and Dance, presented May 15-17 (7:30 p.m.) at Forum Theater, UC San Diego. Tickets through Brown Paper Tickets.