Christmas All Aglow

Rebekah Ahrendt on December 11, 2007
Continuing a long-standing tradition, the San Francisco Bach Choir presented a joyful holiday program on Saturday night. The large sanctuary of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco resounded with Renaissance and early Baroque works, as well as traditional music of the season. SFBC's program, titled "Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas," featured the 60-plus member choir, as well as four soloists from the Pacific Boychoir, accompanied by strings and keyboards. This was SFBC's first Christmas concert under its new artistic director, Corey Jamason. Renowned as a harpsichordist, Jamason has recently also made a name for himself as a conductor, directing performances of opera and musical theater. What he may lack in choral conducting experience he more than makes up for in musicianship, earnestness, and verve. The four boys added a distinct cuteness factor to the program and also performed admirably. Their finest moment was perhaps their first piece on the program, Michael Praetorius' Quem pastores laudavere. Praetorius published this charming work in 1621. The central group of children sings the verses and an adult choir sings a refrain response, all accompanied by four-part string ensemble. The contrast between the delicate boys' voices and the boisterously happy adult group was delightful. If there's one thing that this choir is famous for, it's the dramatic use of a performance space. The members of the choir perfectly executed the choreography of the concert, with smooth and orderly transitions covered by pleasing instrumental pieces. For the Puer natus / Ein Kind geborn of Praetorius, a small group at the front of the church was answered by two larger groups in the balcony. The surround-sound effect was most impressive. The true magic of the evening, however, was the candlelit portion. After the intermission, the audience was suddenly plunged into utter darkness. Then, to the chanted strains of the hymn Veni, veni, Emmanuel, the choir slowly processed into the church, each member carrying a candle. By the end of their candlelit peregrinations, choir members were stationed in the aisles, the front, and the balconies. Tiny points of light and individual voices blended in a warming glow that filled the space. The audience was enchanted, particularly by a performance of the Sussex Carol in a drippingly Romantic arrangement by David Willcocks. Hearts were cheered by the familiar tune, made the more rich by Willcocks' inclusion of wordless vocal accompaniment and the sound of the pipe organ. Another Willcocks arrangement, of Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, also tickled the fancy of the audience.

Breaking the Mold of the "Manger" Carol

One interesting programming choice was Witold Lutosławski's arrangement of Away in a Manger, sung by the boy soloists. Lutosławski's post-tonal accompaniment, played on the piano, provided a defamiliarizing counterpoint to the traditional tune. The spell was broken when the lights suddenly came back up. The audience gasped, startled by the sudden return to full illumination in the church. Considering the effect, it probably would have been a good idea at that point to conclude the concert with a rousing carol or two, as the choir demonstrated with Here We Come A-Wassailing and Angels We Have Heard on High. After those two carols, the audience was completely worked up and ready to sing themselves. But, for whatever reason, these two hits were followed by three other tunes, including all eight verses of the (somewhat uninspiring) Shepherds Rejoice by William Billings. The quite odd Seven Joys of Mary was also sung in full, in which we learned that Mary's "joy of six" was "to see her own son Jesus Christ upon the crucifix." So much for mater dolorosa. After another lengthy Billings carol, the scheduled program was finally over. As a special bonus, the choir returned to sing its traditional closer, Adeste fideles. Apparently, Jamason wanted the audience to finally sing along with the English version, O Come All Ye Faithful, but his gesture toward the audience was a bit unclear. Had he shed his propriety, turned around, and flamboyantly conducted the audience, I'm sure the whole house would have been on its feet. Next time. This was, after all, Jamason's first Christmas concert with the San Francisco Bach Choir. Under his baton, the choir is rhythmically crisp. They have lost none of their accomplishments in movement and spirit. But some pieces felt a bit too careful, as if Jamason's determination to do the best job possible somehow got in the way. By next year, I'm sure that everyone will be much more comfortable. After all, this group has been delighting audiences for 70 years — truly a San Francisco tradition.

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