The good news is that the choral ensemble San Diego Pro Arte Voices under the musical direction of Patrick Walders is back. Friday’s opening concert of the ensemble’s seventh season offered his dependable array of off-the-beathen-path, sophisticated repertory sung with precision and verve. The bad news is they no longer have their customary vibrant acoustical venue—St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach—and are now performing in La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Church, a large, acoustically dry room that made this fine chorus sound distant and rather cold.
Pro Arte Voices’ passionate performance of two works by Thomas Regelski made the strongest impression. An emeritus professor from SUNY Fredonia now residing in Finland, Regelski has only recently released his trove of choral compositions, according to Walders. His electric, expressionist idiom and gripping text declamation provide a welcome respite from the bliss-infused minimalist paeans that current choral composers eagerly churn out.
Regelski took Don McLean’s poignant anti-war ballad “The Grave” and bolstered its dramatic narrative with muscular counterpoint and explosive dynamics, as well as a striking piano accompaniment. Yes, this is the McLean who gave us the bubble gum hit “American Pie,” but “The Grave” belongs to the repertory of Bach cantatas and Mozart’s Requiem. In Robert Lowell’s poem of existential regret, “23. For Sheridan,” Regelski fashioned another compelling anthem marbled with darkly radiant harmonies propelled by an incisive piano accompaniment, adroitly played the ensemble’s Collaborative Pianist Michael Munson.
Another striking find, Jocylen Hagen’s “Endless” took a rather didactic, anonymous text about how to judge a piece of music and infused it with mesmerizing lyricism supported by dense chordal progressions that moved at a profoundly glacial pace. A hovering pair of obbligato violins complemented the burnished shimmer of the women’s unison lines. One of the younger composers on this program, Hagen took a gentle sip from the minimalist cup, but hardly enough to intoxicate her serious intent and better judgement.
James Ballard set Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethway’s poem “June 1863” about the cruel fate of a platoon of black Union soldiers at the hands of the racist General Banks as a bitter a cappella requiem. Ballard’s somber harmonies progressed in a solemn procession, spurred by agonized dissonances. Lauded American poet Wallace Stevens provided Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan with a short poem expressing a vexing metaphysical quandary, “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” For some reason, MacMillan gave his piece the title “Changed” in place of Stevens’ original. In “Changed,” eerie yet sumptuous themes glowed, set in close harmony over a mysterious low ostinato played on the organ by Munson.
Walders opened the concert with David C. Dickau’s breezy “If Music Be the Food of Love,” a lovely, consonant anthem that suggested the ghost of Randall Thompson continues to haunt some American choral composers. David Chase, recently retired from a celebrated career as Music Director of the La Jolla Symphony Chorus, provided the rousing program closer, “Freedom,” a gospel choir arrangement of the spiritual, “Oh, Freedom.” As soloist, Rebecca Ramirez employed her opulent voice to lead the Pro Arte Voices with authentic gospel flourish. Although they responded with enthusiasm, in that cavernous setting, they needed twice as many choristers and a richer, authentically gospel style of vocal production to unleash the spiritual fire Chase wrote into his piece. Nevertheless, it ended the program on a vibrant note.
This program was presented by the San Diego Pro Arte Voices at Torrey Pines Church, La Jolla, on Friday, July 26, 2019.