San Diego Pro Arte Voices’ Musically Rich Evening of Readings and Carols

Although most of the Christmas music performed during the holiday season was originally intended for church services, in these secular times music lovers tend to hear this repertory in concert settings. A felicitous compromise is the Service of Lessons and Carols, an English invention that simply alternates seasonal music and Biblical readings like a very tall club sandwich with only a garnish of ritual—a couple of perfunctory prayers and a benediction. This style of service provides the advantage off giving the audience a chance to join in singing several carols with the stirring addition of a trained choir to bolster their modest vocal efforts.

San Diego Pro Arte Voices [photo courtesy of San Diego Pro Arte Voices]

On Saturday, December 22, San Diego Pro Arte Voices under its Artistic Director Patrick Walders gave its fifth annual “Evening of Readings and Carols,” patterned after the 100-year old model from King’s College, Cambridge, but replacing a few of the scriptural passages with contemporary poetry and personal observations. In the spacious, acoustically resonant nave of St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, this formula has worked well, especially with the well-positioned mighty pipe organ powering the carols in which the audience participates.

In tribute to the English roots of this type of program, Walders gave pride of place to choral compositions by Benjamin Britten and Peter Warlock, as well as to the big, flashy congregation-plus-choir arrangements of popular carols by David Willcocks. The Pro Arte women sang two movements from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, “As Dew in April” and “This Little Babe.” To the former, the women’s crisp articulation brought out its soaring brilliance, and for the latter they employed a slightly darker sonority and assertive rhythmic accents that perfectly developed the darkness of the carol’s text.

Medieval carols, on which Britten based his much lauded choral work, were not restricted to the pious 19th-century saccharine “tender and mild” sentiments about the infant Jesus, and indeed the historic practice of caroling was more brazenly political than today’s Hallmark card pictures of jolly, well-dressed folks serenading their neighbors under a glowing streetlight. But that is a subject for another time.

Harpist Alexandra Tibbetts adroitly supplied the bracing accompaniments to those two Britten movements and later in the program gave a shimmering account of work’s harp solo, an austere but tender a fusion of those different states of being, as only Britten could portray. His “A Hymn to the Virgin,” a very early composition started when Britten was yet a student, made a welcome return from last year’s Pro Arte Voices December concert. Walders coaxed rhapsodic dynamic swells at the appropriate moments, and the radiant echo quartet placed in the back of the sanctuary added significantly to the work’s emotional power.

Peter Warlock’s “Benedicamus Deo,” a delightfully rambunctious anthem full of theological bon mots, played to the strengths of Pro Arte Voices: explosive declamation and rich, spikey harmonies that the singers delivered with both zeal and precision. There are probably too many versions extant of the popular “Pat a Pan” carol, but Kirke Mechem’s sophisticated setting for harp and chorus redeems the carol by weaving deft counterpoint of voice and harp around its sometimes annoying, relentless melody.

The most compelling part of the choir’s performance of the popular Gaelic blessing “Deep peace of the running wave to you” was the glowing descant played by violinist Jesus Cervantes, who cultivated a delicate, sinuous line that at times sounded very close to the human voice.

Walders chose nine of his eighteen singers to present his sole early music choice, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Ave Maria.” I appreciated the vibrant vocal color and energized contrapuntal lines these singers dispalyed interpreting this Renaissance gem, a pleasant contrast to the subdued pastel restraint too many conductors believe music of this period requires.

Organist Emma Whitten brought majestic breadth and unfailing rhythmic security accompanying the rousing Willcocks carol arrangements: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” etc. Stellar trumpeter Ken Fitzgerald projected Willcocks’ simple but telling descants from the organ gallery. He and Whitten played a sprightly movement from a Giuseppe Torelli Trumpet Concerto before the service began. Their finesse made me wish they had played the whole concerto.

San Diego has been enjoying a welcome choral renaissance over the last several years. Under Walders’ astute leadership, Pro Arte Voices brings to the table a powerful professional ensemble with a mature tonal palette and superior technical skills. This “Evening of Readings and Carols” again demonstrated how valuable this organization is to the region’s cultural life.

This program was presented by San Diego Pro Arte Voices on December 21, 2018, at the Village Community Presbyterian Church in Rancho Santa Fe and on December 22, 2018, at St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach. The December 22 performance was attended for this review.

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