Ever sensitive to a multiplicity of choral traditions and styles, Skylark Vocal Ensemble observed the Christmas holiday on Saturday at First Parish Church in Weston by paying homage to the great tradition of the Lessons and Carols ceremony at the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge University, that began 101 years ago—a month after the end of the Great War. Artistic Director Matthew Guard devised a program that resembled the modern ceremony broadcast round the world by mixing cherished standards with works by living composers, texts in six languages, spanning five centuries. The 14-member a cappella ensemble used the Weston sanctuary effectively, singing a handful of works from behind the audience in an acoustic “sweet spot” of the space as well as in the chancel. Moreover, Skylark continued its mission of educating the audience beyond the printed program notes: Guard spoke for most of an hour about this Anglican tradition and the famous people associated with it, e.g., Rev. Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College Chapel in 1918, and two legendary music directors, Boris Ord and David Willcocks. Guard also noted how this ceremony enlarged the repertory of sacred Christmas choral music by the commissioning of new anthems and by revisiting largely forgotten works of centuries before.
Though this was explicitly a concert, not a religious service, the music was grouped to allow applause where the ceremony would have readings. It began as did the first King’s Lessons and Carols in 1918, with “Up! Good Christen Folk, and Listen,” as arranged by G. R. Woodward, a light-hearted and sweetly tuneful anthem with emphatic melismas and framed by choral “bells”. The now-standard opening hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City” followed. The chorus started from behind the audience, with Sarah Moyer skillfully deputizing for a solo boy soprano. The organ part was subsumed convincingly into the choral texture as the singers processed to the chancel. Without the great reverberation of King’s College Chapel, the forward-moving tempo was sensible and did not forgo a reflective quality in the early verses. Harold Darke wrote his well beloved anthem “In the Bleak Midwinter” for organ and choir, and given a small ensemble and a dryish room, perhaps one could occasionally perceive a seam in the staggered breathing, but the singing carried across beauty of tone, enviable balance and the clear text..
Onetime organist and choirmaster of King’s College, Boris Ord was represented here by his one published anthem Adam Lay y Bounden. The performance boasted vigorous rhythm, expressive dynamics, and precise intonation, making one regret there are no other works from Ord’s pen to be explored. His successor, David Willcocks, though not known as a composer, was a brilliantly gifted arranger, and Guard included several of his arrangements, beginning with “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” The performers negotiated its many syncopations with aplomb and conveyed the text’s joy.
In Michael Praetorius’s macaronic (alternating German and Latin text) double-choir setting of In dulci jubilo the proliferation of imitative writing, cross-rhythms, and echo effects never impinged on the energetic main pulse. Swedish composer Jan Sandström (b. 1954) used another Praetorius work, Es is ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, how a rose ere blooming) as the basis for his pastiche-like setting, placing the chorale as composed by Praetorius against a greatly expanded wordless harmonic backdrop. The leisurely unfurling of the opening chord, and of subsequent harmonic shifts, painted the image of the blossoming rose. The singers demonstrated remarkable control of tuning and breath in this subtly demanding piece. Herbert Howells’s (1892-1983) setting of an English adaptation of the same text, “A Spotless Rose,” is one of his most popular choral works for its rich harmonies and luxuriant melismas. Bass-baritone Dana Whiteside’s account of the solo was expressive and colorful, and the juxtaposition of his full vibrato again the austere, near-straight tone choral accompaniments was striking.
The French affinity for jazz is well known, and composer Pierre Villette (1926-1998) offers a notable example with his Hymne à la Vierge. Skylark’s silken legato and immaculate intonation were great assets in this piece of unabashed “classical” jazz. Some well-chosen moments of rubato lingered on savory turns of phrase, and the luscious chords of the coda were delectable. Though Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s choral music is generally an example of “holy minimalism”, Skylark’s selection, Bogoróditse Djévo, mostly closely resembled the Russian Orthodox works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, with its neo-Romantic harmonies and pulsing energy, as expertly performed here.
Returning to the Renaissance, Skylark rendered the famous O Magnum Mysterium of Tomás Luis de Victoria with chaste beauty and pellucid polyphony; its final “alleluia” was less overtly celebratory than most, evoking an inward ecstasy that was profoundly moving. Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol (from A Boy Was Born, Op. 3) had an affecting directness and purity, somewhat enigmatic yet hypnotic.
In a second accomplished arrangement, Quelle est cette odeur agréable? (What is that goodly fragrance), Willcocks enhanced the carol’s beautiful melody with liberal appoggiaturas and suspensions, complemented in turn by the artists’ graceful and lush performance. Benedicamus Domino (Let us bless the Lord) by Peter Warlock (1894-1930) made for a brief show-stopper, sung here with assertive exuberance. Bob Chilcott’s (b. 1955) Shepherd’s Carol sets a beautiful poem of Clive Sansom to equally gorgeous music. The ensemble’s exemplary dynamic control and nuanced tone in the music’s many expressive rises and falls was a highlight of the program. “The Three Kings” is a choral arrangement, translated into English, of a German song by Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) whose technique is not unlike Jan Sandström’s in Es is ein Ros entsprungen, but reversed. A Lutheran chorale (here “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”) forms the accompaniment to an original solo melody with a different text about the kings. Baritone Peter Walker was the warm-toned soloist, and the remaining singers and Guard were ever attentive to balance while still giving the chorale equal importance.
While the current King’s College Lessons and Carols each year ends with “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” Guard again chose the 1918 ceremony as model and concluded with “The First Nowell,” though in Willcocks’s evergreen arrangement. As before, the colorful organ accompaniment was incorporated skillfully into the choral parts, and the singing alternated declamation, contemplation, and joyful triumph. The elated audience insisted on an encore so the performers let down their hair and gave us a warm, fuzzy rendition of Peter Mansfield’s vocal jazz arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” à la Manhattan Transfer. There was no question that for all present this helped “make the Yuletide bright.”
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.