San Diego’s Midsummer Choral Magic

Discovering top-drawer performances of choral music in the middle of San Diego summer means looking in unexpected places. Last Saturday evening, July 28, Ruben Valenzuela’s Willan West project offered some fine examples of Healey Willan’s liturgical choral music at an Anglo-Catholic mass in Hillcrest’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and Tuesday, July 31, Patrick Walders’ Summer Conducting Workshop—a project of his San Diego Pro Arte Voices—offered a program of primarily secular choral music in the workshop’s final recital at St. Andrew’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach.

In each event, the level of choral singing proved stellar. Not surprisingly, the 15 voices of Valenzuela’s Willan choral ensemble stressed pristine balance among the sections and a highly polished, reverent sonority that was liturgically standard before Vatican II. Walders’ 40 voices delivered a rousing, more expansive sonic palette, one that encompassed both an effusive Latin motet by Johann Michael Haydn (talented but sadly overlooked younger brother to Joseph) and Leonard Bernstein’s “Best of All Possible Worlds” from his operetta Candide.

The amazing find on the Willan program was his “Regina coeli laetare,” a scintillating Marian motet (in English save for the rondo-like refrain of the Latin title) for treble voices that filled the All Saints’ nave with crisp angular lines and propulsive rhythms that so splendidly embodied the joyful text. The sonic purity and incisive attacks of Valenzuela’s sopranos made the motet soar. Willan’s Missa Brevis No. 6 from 1933 offered a more sober spirituality, based on three chorale arrangements by J. S. Bach. The choir deftly balanced Bach’s always engaging counterpoint with the essential chordal movement of his progressions. The traditional chorale tunes Willan chose for this Missa Brevis are still found in Lutheran hymnals’ liturgical sections and are widely used.

Placing Willan’s liturgical compositions in the context for which they were intended certainly has its virtues, although observing the amount of ritual invovled in such a performance practice may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The only ritual involved in the Pro Arte Voices Conducting Workshop recital was Walders’ opening litany of acknowledgements and coming attractions. From there, six conducting fellows appeared in swift sequence to conduct the adept chorus in the work of each fellow’s choice. The find on this program, at least for this listener, was Charles Villiers Stanford’s delicious a cappella secular motet “The Bluebird,” whose subtle dynamic fluctuations and gossamer textures conductor Mary Chapman shaped most skillfully, and soprano Kathryn Lillich floated her lithe solo above the choir eloquently.

Scott Neese led a winsome arrangement (attributed to Mooney on the program) of the Irish folksong “She Moved Through the Fair,” which the men of the choir expressed in particularly vibrant colors and ardent delivery. I was pleased to hear Johann Michael Haydn’s Gradual “Gloriosus Deus,” which Dong-Kyu Lee infused with apt ebullience. Some historians have observed that Michael Haydn’s sacred music is richer and more varied than that of his illustrious older brother, and this beautifully crafted work suggested that line of inquiry has some potential.

In this Bernstein centennial year it was refreshing to hear a conductor choose something other than “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, a sturdy and inspiring choral offering that is suffering from overexposure. Adan Fernandez gave a playful account of “Best of All Possible Worlds” from Candide, although the choir’s solid ensemble and clear diction showed careful preparation under the satirical surface.

For those seeking a serious helping of choral music, San Diego Pro Arte Voices is opening its 2018-19 season this Friday, August 3, with Celebrate!—a program devoted to the music of Bernstein, William Byrd, Claude Debussy, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Charles H. H. Parry. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. in the sanctuary of St. Andrews by the Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach, 1050 Thomas Ave. Patrick Walders conducts his professional choir in one of the few San Diego churches that actually flatters the sound of choral music.

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