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Cappella SF Triumphs Timelessly

October 31, 2017

The glowing gold-leaf covered arches of Mission Dolores Basilica perfectly matched the radiant singing of one of San Francisco’s newest choirs, Cappella SF, when I heard the group Sunday afternoon. In a program called “Timeless,” the choir performed a dozen unaccompanied choral works from 10 centuries — from Hildegard von Bingen to the present day — with stunning technical accuracy, amazing vocal control, and impressive intensity of affect. The program also included appearances by the exemplary Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco.

Founded in 2014 by San Francisco Symphony Chorus director Ragnar Bohlin, Cappella SF comprises 24 singers. Although biographies were not given for the singers, it was apparent from the performance that most, if not all, are conservatory-trained professionals. Their entrances were pitch-perfect and confident, even in the most complicated harmonies. Consonants were clearly enunciated and — perhaps even more important­ — vowels were perfectly matched, producing a consistently rich core of sound.

A chorale of strong voices like this is a fine instrument, one that Bohlin played with expert skill. His subtle hand gestures signaled points where the sound needed to be trimmed or boosted a little, and his larger gestures guided the choir effectively towards the larger trajectories of a piece. Especially notable were the delicate finger movements with which Bohlin cut off the singers — unobtrusive and exact. The resulting moments of silence and echo were magical.

The program surveyed choral music from the early medieval to the very contemporary. The choir nicely met the challenges of Hildegard’s chant (sung by the women, standing in the aisles of the basilica, with the men at the back, holding a single note) and Guillaume de Machaut’s complicated rhythms (in a Sanctus from the Messe de Notre Dame). A madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo (“Itene, o miei sospiri”), rich with the strange harmonies of that strange Renaissance composer, came across as emotionally powerful, though a glitch in the program misled the audience by printing the wrong text and wrongly transcribing the title.

Despite the chronological motif of the program, works written before the modern period felt more like appetizers than main courses. The great choral output of the Baroque period was represented only by a brief Bach chorale, as the third part of a lovely assemblage of settings of the popular tune “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” The Romantic period, too, was given just one piece, a lush double-choir motet, “Jordens oro viker,” by the Swedish composer Ludwig Norman.

Cappella SF’s strengths clearly lie in the modern and contemporary repertoire. Here Bohlin chose a selection of virtuosic and expressive music from established composers like Francis Poulenc (a lively Exultate Deo), Benjamin Britten (a little-known chorale written for Christmas in the dark times of 1944, to a text by W. H. Auden) and Arvo Pärt (his strangely beautiful … which was the son of … daringly and excitingly setting the bleak patriarchy of the biblical account of the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke).

Contemporary works included Mason Bates’s From the Book of Matthew, a highly orchestrated depiction of Jesus’s call to the disciples to become fishers of men, and a Pentecost hymn by the Norwegian Ola Gjeilo, which featured a soaring solo by soprano Cheryl Cain. The program’s bias toward serious Christian pieces was nicely tweaked by Cappella SF’s final piece, Eric Whitacre’s dramatic and exotic evocation of scientific creativity, Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine.

In the middle of the concert, Cappella SF took a break while the singers of the Young Women’s Choral Projects, conducted by Susan McMane, took the stage for two lovely liturgical pieces sung from memory, one by Hildegard von Bingen, and the other by the contemporary Hungarian composer Miklós Kocsár.

At the end of the concert, the young women returned to the stage to join Cappella SF in a moving piece by David Conte, The Kingdom of God, written in memory of those killed at Newtown, and beautifully fitted to both the freshness and vigor of a youth choir and the virtuosity of a professional choir.

Given the unmistakable strengths of Cappella SF, the choir needs to give more attention to the quiet end of the dynamic range, especially in the resonant acoustics of a basilica. From my seat fairly close to the front, it seemed as if the group rarely found a true piano dynamic, much less the pianissimo that is called for in a number of the pieces. More inflection of language, as well — that is, making sure that unstressed syllables are softer than stressed — would deliver the texts even more effectively. 

Nicholas Jones is a retired professor of English (Oberlin College) and a member of the board of Early Music America. He sings and plays recorder, violin, and viola da gamba in a number of early music groups in the Bay Area.