In Boston Cecilia’s Christmas program, Mahoney makes admirable showing

December 9, 2017 at 1:01 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Daniel Mahoney conducted Boston Cecilia Friday night at All Saints Church in Brookline.

Daniel Mahoney conducted Boston Cecilia Friday night at the Church of the Advent.

Boston Cecilia is in the midst of a change. Nicholas White, its conductor of four years, stepped down at the end of last season, and the ensemble has been on the lookout for a replacement. This season’s concerts are featuring three podium guests, and one of them will be chosen as the ensemble’s regular conductor.

Cecilia’s programming has remained as strong and eclectic as it always has, and Friday night’s Christmas concert at the Church of the Advent offered holiday favorites alongside works by composers who are well off the radar for many choral societies.

Friday night’s conductor was Daniel Mahoney. Leading with gentle waving gestures, he coaxed a plush ensemble sound from the singers. Attacks were subtle, and Mahoney led with a keen eye to the musical phrase. 

Those qualities were apparent in the work that served as the concert’s focus, Hugo Distler’s Die Weihnachtsgeschichte. Distler wrote a body of choral music before committing suicide in 1942. And like many of his pieces, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte fuses several styles. Structurally, this dramatic Christmas cantata resembles the work of Heinrich Schütz as lines change tempos and direction on a dime. The work, too, which runs to about forty-five minutes, has the meditative effect of Bach’s passions. Harmonically, however, the piece is thoroughly modern, and sonorities sparkle with a mix of consonance and dissonance.

Boston Cecilia did a capable job of bringing the work to life. Mahoney’s big-picture approach, though, resulted in some tentative ensemble attacks, which marred an otherwise glowing performance of the choral passages, each a riff upon the hymn “Es its ein Ros entsprungen.”

The soloists were excellent. Tenor Jonas Budris sang the chant-like recitatives with smooth tone and grace. Soprano Sarah Yanovitch brought a ringing intensity to the role of the Angel, while mezzo-soprano Caroline R. Olsen found the warm, earth-toned resonance of the Virgin Mary. Andrew Miller’s dark baritone was an apt fit for the role of Herod.

A few other works featured these fine singers. Jake Runestad’s Sleep, Little Baby, Sleep, sung by the quartet from the back of the church, glowed with searching lyricism and pristine intonation. In Benjamin Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin, the singers, placed just offstage to answer the choir, delivered phrases that rose and fell like breath. 

The only significant problems of the evening came in Britten’s Christ’s Nativity. Written when the composer was only 17, the work offers mixed musical rewards. Lines in many of its movements dart about without direction, and its thick textures frequently obscure the words. The work does hold’s one’s interest harmonically as the phrases change key quickly. But in all, Christ’s Nativity is juvenilia and lacks the cohesion of the composer’s better-known holiday works such as A Boy Was Born. The piece’s tricky passages resulted in singing that lacked the requisite conviction and energy to pull them off effectively.

Boston Cecilia was at its best in the soft movements, which sounded with tender warmth. And in the other sensitively scored works heard Friday evening, the choir sang with rich lyricism. The melodies of Herbert Howell’s A Spotless Rose flowed in long arcs. Stephen Chatman’s Love Came Down at Christmas swelled with gorgeous tone, and Francisco Guerrero’s Ave Maria beamed in a silky tapestry of sound.

The opener, John Joubert’s ebullient Torches had bright-toned intensity, with Mahoney conjuring crisp diction from the ensemble.

A number of carols—“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Nowell,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”—offered the opportunity for the audience to sing along, with Joseph Turbessi supplying powerful organ accompaniment. Christmas, after all, is a time for communal celebration.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Church in Brookline.

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