Sacra/Profana’s Bridge to Musical Nirvana

As a theme for a San Diego choral program, “Building Bridges and Spanning Waters” should be a sure thing. With the city’s skyline defining bridge to Coronado and its many smaller bridges over coastal inlets, the audience of choral ensemble Sacra/Profana can easily identify with this theme. While “Building Bridges and Spanning Waters” did prove a winning concept, it was the quality of Sacra/Profana’s repertory and the confidence of the choir’s performance that made the concert soar.

Juan Carlos Acosta [photo courtesy of Sacra/Profana]

Associate Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta anchored his program with Canadian composer Larry Nickel’s secular cantata When I Think of Bridges, a U.S. premiere of the 2007 work, according to Acosta. Based on Gary Geddes’ poetic reaction to an actual tragic accident in the construction of Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge in 1958, Nickel effectively employs different musical styles to capture the excitement and the civic boosterism that accompanied the construction before the accident as well as the tragic consequences of the accident followed by appropriate elegiac reflection.

Nickel’s signature style—long flowing lines, close harmonies and shimmering textures—proved ideal for Sacra/Profana, whose own calling card under Acosta’s direction is a polished, superbly blended touring collegiate choir sound. But in his cantata, Nickel reveals several musical tricks up his sleeve, including a swooning 1950s pop romantic ballad style for the movement describing the day of the accident and a snappy period radio commercial style for a section that sports the ironic text “Everything hunky-dory, tickety-boo—a bridge is a happy ending, right?” Sacra/Profana handled every stylistic foray with aplomb and finesse, and I was moved by this substantial and superbly crafted choral work.

Shorter choral works that struck an equally persuasive note included Moses Hogan’s stunning recreation of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” crowned by bass Kenneth Martin’s clarion solo in this updating of the traditional “call and response” structure found in many spirituals. Not only did Martin excel at the extreme edges of his range—he valiantly summoned the spiritual fire that Hogan unleashed in this charged arrangement.

Filipino composer Saunder Choi’s mystical “Brothers of the Sea” stirred this listener, as did French-Canadian Lionel Daunais’ homage to the choral style of Francis Poulenc in his “Le pont Mirabeau” and the inevitable Eric Whitacre salute, his “Water Night,” based on an English translation of an Ocatvio Paz poem. The substantial audience at Christ Lutheran Church in Pacific Beach was brought to its feet by the choir’s rousing performance of Kirby Shaw’s resplendent arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that summed up the concert’s theme on a rapturous high.

Acosta directed with understated but confident clarity, an approach that evoked from his singers a just balance of discipline and compelling emotional communication.

This concert by Sacra/Profana was presented on May 19, 2018, at the Oceanside Museum of Art and on May 20 at Christ Lutheran Church in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego. The May 20 performance was attended for this review.

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