This past weekend the Boston Cecilia entered the fray of what seems to be an endless month of Christmas music with their program. A Starlit Birth. And they seemed to set the bar (as they have done for many years) for this season’s classical Christmas scene. The program was ambitious and well coordinated, including a whole first half dedicated to local sacred composer and organist, James Woodman. The second half was an eclectic mix of Christmas hymns and carols from colonial America, 16th-century Spain, and a set of English carols.
The Cecilia, under the baton of Donald Teeters with Barbara Bruns at the organ, excelled at interpreting the works of Woodman. His music is grounded in a highly tonal sensibility with some extended harmonies that colorfully enrich the text. Furthermore, his text setting seemed to be of a different age, like many of the Renaissance composers, where the marriage of text and music are intricately bound together by a cohesive understanding of implied and explicit meaning. And the Cecilia beautifully portrayed these intricacies. Whether it be the stark transitions of homophony to heterophony to polyphony in Divinum Mysterium, or the concluding text of The Midwife’s Tale; where the words “child, born of sunlight, radiant, laughing, perfect, eyes flashing lightning!” seem to effervesce from the choir as if being spontaneously contrived as an act of creation or genesis. Which, incidentally, is the essence of the text and message conveyed by Woodman. And this is probably where the concert should have ended.
Yet, there are obligations to be met when it comes to Christmas concerts: carols familiar and new, foreign and native. This is where the Cecilia lost some of its luster. Besides the cursory mistake in the program that categorizes Silent Night as an English carol, not Austrian/German, other parts of the performance were not as compelling as the first half. Most of this came from the 16th-century Spanish carols. There was a certain amount of awkwardness with the singers who were simultaneously playing percussion instruments while singing. There were several times, especially in Rìu Rìu Chìu, where it was hard to find the beat in the music and Teeters (with the tambourine) would bring things back together. The Spanish pronunciation seemed a bit muddled throughout as well. This ambitious program probably could have used some trimming, most of which could have been a lot of the last half. It is great to see, however, that in its 134th season, the Boston Cecilia is dedicated to performing works of living composers. Yet, it is a precarious path to navigate a balance between performing what is familiar (especially with Christmas music) and premiering what is new.