The Boston Cecilia Chorus, conducted by Donald Teeters, offered their two-part Christmas program on Sunday afternoon, December 12, at All Saints’ Parish in Brookline. Part I was Lessons and Carols, following the paradigm of King’s College, Cambridge, England, but compressed for concert performance. Part II presented 20th-century Christmas-related choral works by two English composers, John Tavener and Herbert Howells. Reading the lessons in Part I with subtle drama was Benjamin Evett, founding artistic director of another bright star in Boston’s cultural firmament, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
The “ceremony” got off to a bracing start with English composer Peter Wishart’s “Alleluya, A New Work is come on Hand,” full of rhythm games and harmonic surprises. The chorus sang with transparent tone and good blend, delineating the various rhythmic currents clearly and finishing with a ringing first-inversion chord.
After a reading of the Genesis creation story, Peter Warlock’s “Adam lay ybounden” was sung with Barbara Bruns’ skilful organ accompaniment. The sopranos and altos gently alternated with tenors and basses until the final, fourth verse, when all united in a dramatic crescendo to the climactic “Deo gratias!” Warlock’s colorful harmonies emerged with clarity, thanks to the excellent blend and balance of Boston Cecilia.
The prophecy of Micah was read next, telling of little Bethlehem’s future glory, and the Cecilia sang Giovanni Palestrina’s “Canite tuba” (“Sound the trumpet”). Teeters chose, unconventionally, to keep the dynamic largely piano throughout. Perhaps this was a musical metaphor for seeing the glory of Bethlehem from a distant remove, as Micah did. Unfortunately, it also made it easier for the chorus’s pitch to sink slightly, though the counterpoint was admirably clear.
Following the reading of the Annunciation story from Luke, the choir gave us the austerity of a plainsong “Magnificat” (Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would bear the Son of God), punctuated by hand-bell chords. Here the goal was monasticism rather than expressiveness, and it was convincingly realized.
The story from Luke of Jesus’ birth was then read, followed by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “O My Dear Heart” (also known as “Balulalow”), probably composed in 1943 but only published last year; this was likely its first Boston performance. It uses not the text that Benjamin Britten set in his “Ceremony of Carols,” but instead a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams. Scored for women’s voices, it opens with triads wafting through the air like angels singing, soon joined by additional women singing a melodic line. The work features delectable, bittersweet harmonies, a gently iambic rhythm, and a particularly lovely, sweet ending. Its ethereal quality also applied, regrettably, to the diction at times, but otherwise this performance demonstrated what a jewel this carol is and how mystifying that it was withheld from the world for over sixty years.
After another reading of Luke — Jesus worshipped by angels and shepherds — we heard a rendering of Francisco Guerrero’s “Pastores loquebantur” (“The shepherds said to each other”), an especially attractive example of Spanish Renaissance polyphony, limned with the Cecilia’s customary clarity. The individual parts stayed mostly mezzo-piano, the dynamic allowed to rise or fall simply by the addition or subtraction of voice parts. Where the text mentioned the baby Jesus, however, there was a quite apt subito piano, depicting the shepherds’ awe.
Evett read St. Matthew’s story of the Wise Men following the star, and Part I concluded with Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols,” accompanied artfully by Barbara Bruns and featuring a fine soloist from the chorus, baritone Ron Williams. This yuletide standard is based on three carols, the first somberly reflective, the other two celebratory. It was sung expressively, with all the choral virtues heretofore noted, but also with a curious New England Puritan detachment: even in the joyous final section it was all but impossible to detect a smile from any chorus member, though Williams himself sang with full involvement. Nonetheless, the choral climax on “And we wish them a happy New Year” was stirring, and there was an atmospheric tapering off to the serene conclusion.
Part II began with three works of living composer John Tavener. “Annunciation” is written for antiphonal quartet and chorus. The quartet — Cecilia members positioned behind the audience at the opposite end of the nave from the chorus — represents Mary’s initial response to Gabriel’s news that she will bear the son of God: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” This question, sung in dissonant harmonies perhaps reflecting Mary’s awed confusion, recurs intermittently between Gabriel’s “Hail” statements. The interplay between the two characters was vividly realized in the contrast of the smaller quartet sound with the forte grandeur of the angel. “Hymn to the Mother of God” was a logical successor, a paean to the Virgin Mary for two choirs which sing in canon at the unison, three beats apart. Good balance and minimal vibrato for clarity are essential to the success of this piece, and the Cecilia delivered again. Their rendering generated considerable power through the fascinating alternation of harmonic clashes with resolutions. Rounding off the set was one of Tavener’s best known works, “The Lamb.” Teeters took a daringly slow tempo that his chorus sustained admirably, while also passing the piece’s stern test of intonation. The refrains were especially haunting.
Concluding the concert were two works of Herbert Howells. “A Spotless Rose” featured again the rich solo baritone of Ron Williams. Both chorus and soloist depicted winter winds vividly with expressive rising and falling. Particularly noteworthy was the immaculate tuning of the chilling harmonies on the final “cold, cold winter’s” and the warming resolution on “night.” To finish, the Cecilia chorus and Barbara Bruns at the organ gave a superb account of Howells’ “Magnificat for St. Paul’s, London.” Chorus and organist worked together hand-in-glove under Teeters’ seasoned direction. Dynamics were wonderfully nuanced, from the exciting crescendo of “He hath showed strength” to the gentle handling of “He remembering his mercy.” To cite a favorite high point, the long, legato lines of “As it was in the beginning”, continuing to the end, seemed to burst earthly bounds and soar into infinity, finally punctuated by a powerfully accented last chord. This concert was surely a fine Christmas gift from Donald Teeters and the Boston Cecilia.