From the far distance of the long, vaulted nave came the first sounds of “A Christmas Celebration”—the angelic voices of young boys singing “Once In Royal David’s City.” The congregation and guests quiet, the pure vowels streamed resonantly forth in unison. As the procession continued down the aisle, the full Choir of St. Paul’s Harvard Square could be heard, now with the adult voices of tenors and basses, of the men of St. Paul’s Choir. Then, with brass and organ, all in the sanctuary lifted their voices, “Christian children all must be/mild, obedient, good as He.” A massive swell swaddled the church.
The draw, of course, would be those glorious boys’ voices of the St. Paul’s Choir School, which is the subject of Basil Considine’s informative Intelligencer article, “Fifty Years a Boys Choir” [here]. Garbed in floor length cardinal red robes, these boy choristers made quite a joyful noise under their director, John Robinson. When joined by the men, the boys held their own, even through the thickest of harmonies and dynamics. Much of the time their high voices soared, though at times, this beautiful space of worship turned unkind, transforming vocal loveliness into edginess.
Twenty-four numbers on the program including anthems, hymns, carols, and instrumentals set the season in full swing. It was a celebration familiar to regular church goers. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” and the triumphal concluding hymn, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” came with vocal and brass descant. These were mixed with the folksy “I Wonder As I Wander” and “Jingle Bells.” The English school was once again well represented with arrangements and pieces by Peter Warlock, John Rutter, and David Willcocks.
Englishman Herbert Howells’s “A Spotless Rose” is a choral work that can be heard again and again, especially with the likes of Robinson and The Choir of St. Paul’s doing the singing. The rising lines, the crescendos and decrescendos from this choir gave great movement and depth to the piece’s point: “Its fairest bud unfolds to light/Amid the cold, cold winter,/ And in the dark midnight.” A bass solo emerged with the some of the clearest diction of the afternoon. Robinson perfectly timed the fabulous ending, “In a cold, cold winter’s night” with only the solo voice heard on that very last word, “night.”
John Robinson’s fine arrangement of the English carol, “I Sing of a Maiden,” further exposed the pure sonorousness of these boys’ disciplined voices. The calls of the boys’ melodic utterances in saintly unison were answered with “Maria” posed in harmonized cadences.
The most welcome and divinely sung piece in this celebration was “O magnum mysterium” of Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. The Back Bay Brass Quintet also summoned that era of incredible outpouring of Christian expression through music with a secular piece of Samuel Scheidt, Canzona Bergamesca. Assistant organist Jonathan Wessler uncovered the church instrument’s fundamental stops, flutes and reeds in “Joseph est bien marié” of Baroque composer Claude Balbastre.
Wondrous aptly describes the fourth and fifth graders, sixteen of them, all singing in unalloyed unison in two German carols, “Still, Still, Still” and “O Little One Sweet.” Their diction was also by far the best, making listening to words an effortless joy. The short i vowel became a long e, thus “Steel, Steel, Steel.” Consonants received their generous attention, too.
Entering and leaving the church Sunday afternoon reminded me of the true meaning of this celebration: offering and receiving the warmest of welcomes and heartfelt wishes for a Merry Christmas. And happy 50th Anniversary to the choir.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net