So much Christmas music, so little time
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