So much Christ­mas mu­sic, so lit­tle time

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

Our lo­cal per­form­ers and pre­sen­ters kept the De­cem­ber cal­en­dar jam­packed with sea­sonal of­fer­ings, and any lis­tener who made the rounds racked up some mo­ments to cher­ish in mu­si­cal me­mory. Many of these oc­curred on Dec. 8, when The King’s Singers per­formed at the Cathe­dral Basil­ica of St. Francis of As­sisi, cour­tesy of the Santa Fe Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion. I don’t know if the cathe­dral has ever sounded as well as it did that evening — and I do mean well, al­though it also sounded “good.” It can prove prob­lem­atic as a con­cert space, cre­at­ing acous­ti­cal chal­lenges that mag­nify short­com­ings in a mu­si­cal per­for­mance rather than smooth them over. But it can also mag­nify ex­cel­lence, and that’s what it did for The King’s Singers.

For more than four decades this en­sem­ble has served as the pace­set­ter in the world of men’s cham­ber sing­ing, and the cur­rent per­son­nel (two coun­tertenors, tenor, two bari­tones, and bass) en­tirely up­hold the sig­na­ture tim­bre, blend, and per­son­able at­ti­tude that the group has de­fined and up­held over the years. Among their most dis­tinc­tive at­tributes is an ex­cep­tional mas­tery of in­to­na­tion. Sing­ing in tune is a less ob­jec­tive mat­ter than many mu­sic-lovers might think. It cen­ters on the physics of sound, to be sure, but it also in­vests heav­ily in the hu­man pro­cesses of lis­ten­ing and per­cep­tion. The King’s Singers boasts tremen­dous en­sem­ble tech­nique, and it can har­ness in­to­na­tion it­self to achieve a kind of hy­per­pu­rity. Whereas the cathe­dral’s in­te­rior is more typ­i­cally set abuzz with a mael­strom of con­flict­ing sound waves (yield­ing a clot­ted sound), it shim­mered that evening, pro­ject­ing each voice clearly and wrap­ping the en­sem­ble’s tim­bre in lux­ury. This phe­nom­e­non reached its peak in what may have seemed the most unas­sum­ing of the con­cert’s items: a sim­ple ren­der­ing of the cho­rale “O Lit­tle One Sweet” (“O Je­sulein süss”) in a sim­ple but el­e­gant har­mo­niza­tion by Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach. It was a glow­ing moment of per­fec­tion in a pro­gram that ranged cheer­fully among tra­di­tional Christ­mas songs, more con­tem­po­rary sea­son-ori­ented com­po­si­tions, and (for va­ri­ety’s sake) some in­ter­est­ing, un­pre­dictable read­ings of po­etry and prose. Hi­lar­ity was achieved in the group’s ar­range­ment of “The Twelve Days of Christ­mas,” the sea­sonal song that most de­pend­ably over­stays its an­nual visit. This ver­sion in­cor­po­rated 12 letters, posted from the fe­male re­cip­i­ent to the male gift-giver, that re­flect the es­ca­lat­ing chaos en­gen­dered by the re­lent­less ar­rival of maids a-milk­ing, lords a-leap­ing, and all those birds — a cau­tion­ary tale about how well-in­ten­tioned gifts can go awry.

The Santa Fe Women’s En­sem­ble, di­rected by Linda Raney, of­fered four per­for­mances of its Christ­mas Of­fer­ing con­cert at Loretto Chapel, of which I heard the sec­ond, on Dec. 12. Al­though it is not a pro­fes­sional group, these 14 a cap­pella singers cul­ti­vate high mu­si­cal stan­dards, and they em­brace the ad­ven­ture of com­mis­sion­ing and premier­ing new works. Most of this pro­gram con­sisted of pieces they had pre­miered in past years, works by Lana Wal­ter, Kather­ine Dienes (a strik­ing set­ting of the Ch­ester Carol that made pun­gent use of mi­cro­tonal­ity), Sa­muel Gor­don, Daniel Gawthrop, Linda Rice Beck, Shanna Suzanne Mac Lean, and John Fer­gu­son. The most im­pres­sive item on the pro­gram was this year’s com­mis­sion, Two An­dalu­sian Songs by Stephen Paulus. Set to English trans­la­tions of me­dieval po­ems from Arab An­dalu­sia, its move­ments are marked by clar­ity of lines, log­i­cal voice-lead­ing, un­am­bigu­ous text-set­ting, and in­ter­est­ing har­monic jux­ta­po­si­tion. The two evoca­tive move­ments oc­cupy per­haps four min­utes each. The first (“The Sun”) de­scribes a sun­rise and the sec­ond (“A Serene Evening”) a sun­set, with the mu­sic at the end re­lin­quish­ing its day­light only grudg­ingly. It is al­ways clear where the ac­tion is from moment to moment in these un­clut­tered choral songs, which in­spired the group’s finest work of the en­tire evening. I was baf­fled by the au­di­ence’s re­sponse, which was po­lite but not much more.

There was Paulus again on the Santa Fe Desert Cho­rale’s Carols and Lul­la­bies con­cert at the cathe­dral, which I heard on Dec. 20. He was rep­re­sented through his ar­range­ment of the fa­mil­iar carol “The First Noel.” Again it stood out from the crowd, and again it in­spired one of the pro­gram’s best in­ter­pre­ta­tions; un­der Joshua Haber­mann’s di­rec­tion, the choral tex­tures ex­panded and con­tracted here in well-con­trived bal­ance. Ar­rangers some­times seem too present in their ar­range­ments, but here Paulus showed enough re­spect for the orig­i­nal song to not muck it up, with the re­sult that his set­ting was a re­spect­ful boost rather than a de­trac­tion. Cary John Franklin’s ar­range­ment of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentle­men” re­vealed how that tune can be worked out in

Stephen Paulus

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