Although no one blinks an eye these days when some early music ensemble that has cut its teeth performing music of the Baroque announces it is launching into the symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn, the possibilities of period performance practice continue to expand into more surprising directions. San Diego maestro Ruben Valenzuela, known for leading rigorous period performances of Bach and Handel, has launched a several month festival to perform the sacred compositions of the early 20th-century Anglo-Canadian composer Healey Willan with equal concern for period practice.
During the first half of the last century, Willan’s sacred music was widely known and performed in North American churches, but although he composed an opera, symphonies and a piano concerto, his secular contributions have yet to be recovered. Willan West 2018 promises to concentrate on his sacred music during this 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in Toronto in 1968.
Valenzuela opened his Willan West 2018 festival Saturday (January 27) with a modest but scrupulously prepared selection of Willan’s liturgical offerings in a mass celebrated at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hillcrest. For the Ordinary of the mass and two extended motets, Valenzuela directed a carefully assembled mixed a cappella choir of 13 voices from the back of the church nave.
The three movements of Willan’s Missa Brevis No. 5 in F-sharp Minor from 1935 showed the composer’s mastery of Renaissance polyphony adapted to flowing, gently arched late-Romantic melodic ideals. Willan’s neo-Renaissance sacred style from the 1930s paralleled English composer Peter Warlock’s neo-Renaissance instrumental dances, such as his popular Capriol Suite of 1926. Although the motets “Behold the Tabernacle of the Lord” and “O King All Glorious” recalled the straightforward syllabic style of Thomas Tallis, Willan chose braver harmonic progressions than those found in the works of that Renaissance Anglican composer.
Like Valenzuela’s Bach Collegium San Diego choral ensembles, his Willan choir displayed unfailing sectional unity, crystalline pitch, and superb textual clarity. Several of the choristers have sung with the Bach Collegium, but the overall Willan sonority sounded less vibrant that that of the typical Bach Collegium chorus. Especially in the Willan motets, Valenzuela favored the brightness of his sopranos, which added an appreciable emotional edge to this music.
The Willan West Festival continues with regular liturgical celebrations through November 17, 2018, and concerts devoted to Willan’s works on June 24, 2018, and October 12, 2018, both at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hillcrest. The complete schedule may be consulted at willanwest.org.
This music of Willan West 2018 was performed in a liturgical service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 625 Pennsylvania Ave., San Diego, CA, on January 27, 2018.