Given the natural affinity of music and romance, SACRA/PROFANA’s Associate Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta whipped up an appealing choral concert for Valentine’s Day on Friday, February 12, in the Great Hall of St. Paul’s Cathedral.Music from a dozen contemporary composers confirmed the essentially conservative bent of both successful and little-known choral composers, since all aim to court audiences and accommodate the proficiency of choristers. Although instruments can sustain unremitting dissonance, unrelieved cacophony is a trial for choral singers. Except in the case of rank amateurs, of course, but then we are describing a different situation entirely.
Among the rewarding discoveries on this program, I would place at the top of my list Morten Lauridsen’s “Soneto de la noche,” a setting of Pablo Neruda’s eloquent love poem from the composer’s 2005 choral suite Nocturnes. Unlike the austere ecclesiastical mysticism of Arvo Pärt, Lauridsen’s sophisticated, dense choral textures evoke a natural mystical landscape of deep forests and unpeopled, windswept coasts. The radiant clarity of Acosta’s treble singers and the dulcet, plaintive sonority of the men enriched the composer’s exuberant text setting at every turn, and the finale’s extended decrescendo could not have been more blissful.
Another pleasant find was Charles West’s “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” (the familiar Emily Dickinson poem), a winner of SACRA/PROFANA’s recent choral competition contest. West’s slow, etherial progressions and delicate declamation of the poetry proved an ideal match for the floating, unforced choral sound that Acosta has cultivated in his short tenure leading the ensemble.
The rugged counterpoint and occasionally daring harmonic language of Dominick Argento’s Sonnet No. 64 (Shakespeare’s poem “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced”) gave welcome range to SACRA/PROFANA’s program, as did the lush harmonies and sensitive text setting of René Clausen’s “Set Me as a Seal,” a poetic text from the Song of Solomon. In terms of the choir’s performance, I thought this Clausen motet was the evening’s high point.
With noble Brahmsian sweep and an effusive piano accompaniment, James Mulholland’s “A Red, Red Rose” added a sense of grandeur that allowed the choir to project a more robust sound, suggesting a larger group than the ensemble’s 20 young singers. Acosta shaped each phrase with a gentle lift that captured the ardor of Robert Burns’ unfettered poetry.
The relaxed, popular melodic style of Zanaida Robles’ “End of Time” suggested it may have come from a recent and already forgotten musical theater offering—choral fast food, and Eric Whitacre’s “This Marriage” struck me as one of his weaker compositions. His meandering, sing-song tunes reduced the Rumi poetry to banal greeting card wishes. Whitacre’s compelling choral song cycle “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” however, would have made a rewarding contribution to the theme of this program.
SACRA/PROFANA introduced Joshua Shank’s robustly narrated setting of Keats’ “A Grass-Green Pillow” in a concert it gave in June of 2015. Although the text of Daniel Gawthrop’s “Sing Me to Heaven” alludes to a lullaby, I don’t think the whole piece should sound like one. Acosta missed opportunities to dramatize the text, although upon closer inspection, Jane Griner’s blank verse does border on treacle. A popular work among amateur choral groups, Gawthrop’s anthem works best as a church choir’s chaser after a dull sermon.