Sacra/Profana’s Rich Tapestry of Contemporary Choral Music for the Christmas Season

If the season of Christmas comes laden with customs, it is equally true that some may seem a bit worn around the edges. That cherished family recipe no longer turns out with the savory satisfaction we recall when grandma made it, or maybe that favorite holiday wall decoration appears frayed around the edges as we unpack it from the attic storage box.

Over the years we have become accustomed to department stores piping in bland Muzaked carol arrangements as soon as Halloween approaches, and the once highly anticipated choral Christmas concert has devolved into a potpourri of everybody’s favorite carols and pop songs presented in predictable pumped-up arrangements.

Juan Carlos Acosta [photo courtesy of Sacra/Profana]

I am happy to report that Sacra/Profana and its Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta have successfully renovated the obligatory choral Christmas concert into a journey of spiritual challenge and refreshment.

Friday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest, Sacra/Profana took us into unusual byways as well as the darker corners of Advent, that strange liturgical season that precedes Christmas in the Christian calendar. Composer Elaine Hagenberg took the familiar text of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and gave it a haunting new melody, which the male voices first assert as a dark modal incantation adorned with a luminous cello descant—warmly supplied Friday by R. Aaron Bullard—and minimalist chords from the pianist, ably intoned by Adam Ferrara. Developing this theme with the full spectrum of choral voices, the composer crafts a remarkably powerful anthem, which Acosta led and the chorus sang with compelling security.

African-American composer Brandon Waddles took the lesser-known Advent hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and transformed it with a strong, rhythmic setting that fused seamlessly with a rousing traditional spiritual, a bold equation of spiritual salvation and freedom from enslavement. Sacra/Profana’s steely sonority in this piece and laudable conviction made a strong case for the work they had commissioned from Waddles, although I wished that alto Danielle Perrault had sounded more assertive in her solo role.

Shawn Kirchner’s probing meditation “A Sign Opposed” makes the enigmatic prophecy of Simeon uttered at the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple (as recorded in the Gospel of Luke) a dramatic proclamation conveyed through dense harmonic progressions, insistent ostinatos, and subtle dynamic contrasts, which were navigated beautifully by the chorus. We heard both Kirchner’s and Hagenberg’s works in Sacra/Profana’s 2018 Christmas concert, but these are substantial newer works that deserve repeated hearings. Fahad Siadat’s mysterious poetry, angular lines, and sophisticated harmonic vocabulary in “Who Is This Boy?” also intrigued me in last season’s Sacra/Profana concert, so it was rewarding to hear again his singular invocation of Nativity wonder completely devoid of the sentimental treacle that usually adorns such musings..

Acosta closed the first half of the concert with Eric William Barnum’s “What Is This Light?” another pointed, searching anthem using Charles Anthony Silvestri’s daring poem that poses the question “What shall we do to prepare for his coming when all of our worship, our music, our arts fall insufficient to honor his glory?” The warm, superbly balanced sonority of Sacra/Profana persuasively communicated this work’s emotional depth. Kudos to Acosta for cultivating such a well-balanced, finely tuned ensemble sound that still retains the color and vitality we cherish in a great singer.

I was particularly moved by the paean “Mater Dei—The Mother of God” by Sarah Rimkus, yet another accomplished young American composer on this program. While the basses and tenors intone a kind of ground bass with a Latin text that is mainly the “Ave Maria” prayer, the altos and sopranos soar with English poetry that comprise a young mother’s musing on her exceptional maternity. Rimkus’ broadly structured sonic tapestry ranges from uncluttered lyrical poignancy to denser textures that suggest a holy clamor. The composer studied with Morten Lauridsen as an undergraduate, and I hear in her work a spaciousness that I associate with the lauded Minimalist composer, although Rimkus clearly expresses her own voice.

Although Gustav Holst’s setting of Christina Rosetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” is frequently sung in churches, you are unlikely to hear this English carol wafting above you while Christmas shopping. Abbie Betnis has taken Holst’s fine tune and layered it with chant-like themes and supported it with an atmospheric piano part. Soprano Becca Ung and alto Meghan Rossi projected confidently the beautifully intertwined duet Betnis has fashioned above the humming choir at the center of this thoughtfully constructed choral work.

Sacra/Profana commissioned local composer Stephen Sturk to set another Christina Rossetti poem, “Love Came Down at Christmas.” Although the composer set Rossetti’s text sensitively, I thought his sweet, diatonic themes sounded rather conventional compared to those of the other composers on the program.

Two proven crowd-pleasers closed the program: Paul Ayres’ clever “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” in which a Bach-worthy five-voice fugue takes over the evergreen pop song, and Saunder Choi’s “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which includes a tongue-in-cheek blues riff on the text “See him in a manger laid.”

This concert was presented by Sacra/Profana on Friday, December 13, 2019, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. It was repeated at the San Marcos Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 15.

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