Cantate holiday program serves up bracing mix of the traditional and contemporary

Mon Dec 12, 2022 at 1:26 pm
By Andrew Lindemann Malone

Victoria Gau led the Cantate Concert Choir in a holiday concert Sunday at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.

Holiday-season choral programs always face the dilemma of how to evoke the feelings of the “most wonderful time of the year” without boring an audience that hears seasonal choral works every time they go into CVS. 

On Sunday afternoon at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, the Cantate Concert Choir and music director Victoria Gau threaded the needle with a well-sung program of works, mostly by living composers, that built on tradition while still creating a fresh experience.

Three contemplative Christmas songs set the mood to open the program. William Hawley’s “Alleluia, Dies Sanctificatus” opened with a melody in plainchant style but soon underpinned it with rich harmonies, backed by harpist Emily C. Mason. Libby Larsen’s “A Simple Gloria” was indeed uncomplicated but also effective, and Bob Chilcott’s “The Gift” arranged the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” with a bubbly Christmas spin.

Most striking were the pieces evoking winter, rather than any specific holiday. The Concert Choir gave a delightful performance of Florence Price’s “Song for Snow,” limning the complex harmonies Price used to set the words “icily sweet” as pianist Carter Sligh conveyed horses drawing a sleigh with clip-clop chords. Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” got a suitably chilly setting from Matthew Culloton, with Mason’s harp notes sounding the falling flakes.

Ola Gjeilo provided the highlight of the afternoon with “Northern Lights.” With a text from the Song of Solomon, the setting presents luminous, serene chords that slowly shifted and refracted like the titular atmospheric phenomenon, reprising as if to think on them one more time. The Norwegian composer’s striking music was realized with sustained intensity by the choir.

Of the four dance-themed pieces that followed, Emile Desamours’ “Noél Ayisyen” (A Haitian Noël) stood out, with the Cantate singers clearly enunciating the Haitian text and cleanly negotiating the tricky rhythms at an infectious speed, even when clicking their tongues for percussive effect. At times in John Gardner’s “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” Tom Maloy’s festive percussion drowned out the choir in the church’s tricky acoustic. At other times in this set, the choir’s rhythms blurred a bit, but Gau was able to get them back on track in each case.

After the dances, harpist Mason played three of her own arrangements of Christmas carols. In addition to giving the singers a respite, the instrumental interlude was enlivened by Mason’s subtle harmonic tweaks and fluid playing.

The program closed with the most familiar music. Kirke Mechem’s Seven Joys of Christmas resets some popular and some less well-known carols, freely riffing on their original melodies; the personal touches made the whole work add up to more than the sum of its parts, aided by Cantate Concert Choir’s enthusiastic performance.

Chilcott’s setting of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” closed the program; it natters along merrily until the fifth day, where we entered the world of lounge jazz for the words “five golden rings” before  segueing into “Silent Night,” disco, and Delibes, among other things. Gau and the choir leaned into the silliness, making for a fun closer, even if the more somber wintry evocations from earlier in the program lingered longest in the memory.

Cantate presents “Pieces of Life” March 19, 2023.

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