San Diego Pro Arte Voices Takes Its Movable Feast of “Texts and Music for Humankind” to Hillcrest’s First Unitarian Universalist Church

We are indebted to our British cousins for inventing and cultivating the service of Lessons and Carols early in the last century. On this side of the Atlantic during the seasons Advent and Christmas, these simple but effective services are presented—in various permutations—in churches and other venues, frequently more as choral concerts than as actual worship services.

Since 2014 during the week prior to Christmas, San Diego Pro Arte Voices and its Artistic Director Patrick Walders have presented an evening of Readings and Carols, in which a few secular readings and personal reminiscences have replaced some of the service’s traditional Scriptural lessons.

Friday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, Walders and his chorus unveiled their latest incarnation of this format: Peace/Hope/Joy/Love: An Evening of Texts and Music for Humankind. While most of the music still centered on Christmas themes, none of the readings came from Sacred Scripture or recounted the Nativity story. In Walders’ program notes, he stressed his desire to “consider more universal themes” to foster community.

I found this approach even more successful than the previous Readings and Carols, letting the music conjure the spiritual and secular Christmas narratives, while the readings and poems considered more universal themes. And what better setting to essay this approach than in the Meeting House of the city’s largest Unitarian-Universalist congregation?

Some of Walders’ musical selections we have heard Pro Arte Voices perform before: Andrew Carter’s stirring, assertive setting “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Kirke Mechem’s superbly crafted “Pat a Pan” with harp accompaniment, and Kenneth Martin’s heart-warming choral setting of “Deep Peace,” with its deft violin descant. Walders opened his first Readings and Carols service with Carter’s piece, and it is always inspiring to hear it performed with strong voices and organ lead, although organist Emma Whitten’s bold accompaniment on the Abbott and Sieker/Marceau organ at times overbalanced the 23 singers of Pro Arte Voices. In “Deep Peace” and Abbie Betnis’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Pro Arte Voices’ warm, well-balanced choral sound communicated these singers’ deep conviction with laudable urgency. Kudos to sopranos Lisa Newton and Carron Martin for their gleaming, beautifully phrased duet in the Betnis work.

New choral works on the program included “At the Break of Christmas Day,” a Pro Arte Voices commission by San Diego composer Kenneth Martin, and noted British composer James Whitbourn’s “A Prayer of Desmond Tutu.” Martin gave the choir billowing phrases and an ecstatic harmonic palette, which appeared to suit both Walders and the singers well: they gave the new piece an ardent account, beaming with Edwardian splendor but without a trace of grandiloquence. Walders displayed his versatility both conducting and drumming Whitbourn’s 2003 offering, an anthem with overtones of a South African freedom song.

Among the solos on this program, I salute Tasha Koontz’s dramatic rendition of Samuel Barber’s “Sure on This Shining Night,” harpist Alexandra Tibbetts’s wistful, beautifully pointed “Interlude” from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and Whitten’s three lovely organ preludes at the opening of the program. Koontz’s opulent soprano gave Barber’s vocal lines operatic gravity, and Tibbetts used her delicate dynamics to draw the audience into Britten’s mesmerizing web. Unlike the noisy audiences in Pacific Beach, where Pro Are Voices gave their previous five Readings and Carols programs, the Hillcrest audience at First Unitarian-Universalist gave Whitten their complete attention as she played her colorfully registered, aptly atmospheric seasonal works by Denis Bédard, Wilbur Held, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This program was presented by San Diego Pro Arte Voices on Friday, December 20, 2019, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego in the city’s Hillcrest neighborhood. The program was repeated on Saturday, December 21, at the University City United Church in San Diego’s University City neighborhood.

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