Cappella SF Expertly Showcases Gems of British Choral Music

Nicholas Jones on September 17, 2018
Cappella SF | Credit: Roy Manzanares

English choral music begins with, and depends upon language, both religious and secular.

The solemn resonance of the 1611 King James Bible has long been the mainstay of a state-supported Anglican church music, kept active by the English cathedral choir tradition. And on the secular side, there is the wealth of English lyric and dramatic poetry by the likes of Shakespeare, Blake, and Auden, nearly inexhaustible material for choral composers.

This rich combination of text and music, especially for English-language audiences, underlies the broad appeal of the music sung at the royal wedding earlier this year, music by such composers as Tallis, Handel, Holst, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams.

Ragnar Bohlin

Perhaps in a nod to the royal wedding, this weekend’s program by Cappella SF was titled “Crown Jewels of Britain.” The 24-voice professional choir, conducted by S.F. Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, presented a broad selection from the English choral tradition, chronologically arranged from the late-medieval John Dunstable to composers working in the present day. I heard Saturday evening’s performance at Oakland’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the Light; the program was repeated at Mission Dolores Basilica on Sunday afternoon.

While Saturday’s performance was strong in many ways, language — at the center of this choral music — was almost completely lost in the boomy acoustics of the cathedral. Consonants were scarcely evident from my seats in the middle and back of the church; and fast-moving lines were obliterated by the very long reverberation time and quirky echoes of this circular space with its enormously high ceiling. Words, new musical phrases, and nuances had basically no chance in this uncongenial hall.

This is a shame, since Cappella SF normally performs at a very high level. The chorus, now in its fourth year, is particularly strong in the demanding sonorities of the modern and contemporary repertoire, but is also fluent in earlier music. On Saturday, the singers’ command of pitch and expressive range was evident throughout. Bohlin’s fluid leadership brought out the narrative trajectory of each of the dozen choral pieces. The choir responded sensitively to calls for dynamic intensity or relaxation.

The choir masterfully handled the challenges of contemporary pieces such as Judith Bingham’s quite moving The Darkness Is No Darkness, full of deliberately unstable harmonies within a framework of paradoxically resolute mysticism. The final piece in the program, Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars by Jonathan Dove, was both precise and passionate in the excitement of its repeated motif, “Seek him!”

Cappella SF rehearsing in Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light | Credit: Cathleen Josaitis

But in earlier music, like Dunstable’s intricate “Veni, sancte spiritus,” the rhythmic complexity was evident only to the eye — in Bohlin’s conducting and in what I could see of the singers’ mouths — but not to the ear. The music I heard in this and other pieces came into the pews too often as an undifferentiated wall of sound.

More successful were energetic performances of pieces by two of the giants of English modernism: Vaughan Williams’s moving Three Shakespeare Songs and Britten’s “Chorale on a French Carol” (on a dense text by Auden) — though again, the words were largely indecipherable.

The finest single piece of the program was one in which language does not matter: Elgar’s stirring “Nimrod” from the orchestral Enigma Variations, here set to the text of “Lux aeterna” from the requiem Mass. The music itself is so familiar and so powerful, with its rich harmonies and daring melodic leaps, that it barely needs a text.

The choral adaptation of “Nimrod” used here was presumably that by David Hill, but the arranger was not given credit in the program (nor were the venues and dates of the performances). The program booklet is nicely designed, with prominent headings for ease of following along on texts and program notes. As in many programs, however, the notes include far too much information for listeners to absorb.

Cappella SF performing in Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light | Credit: Corty Fengler

Several pieces featured the cathedral’s 92-rank Létourneau electro-pneumatic organ, played by Mission Dolores Basilica Music Director Jerome Lenk, including Elgar’s Imperial March arranged for solo organ. The organ, unfortunately, often collaborated with the over-resonant acoustics of the cathedral to overwhelm the choir’s nuances of diction and articulation.

A famous encore that needed no introduction, was a welcome parting reminder of how vital choral music remains in Britain — Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem (“And did those feet in ancient times”). A crown jewel, indeed.

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