Back Bay Chorale serves up a winning holiday mix

December 21, 2019 at 11:16 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Katherine Chan conducted the Back Bay Chorale in “A Boston Christmas” Friday night at Old South Church.

The challenge of constructing a fresh and musically interesting holiday concert can be a daunting one. Happily, Back Bay Chorale and associate conductor Katherine Chan hit on a winning combination with “A Boston Christmas” at Old South Church on Friday night.

Anchored by a mix of familiar and contemporary choral selections, the program also included carols, festive music for brass, a shout-out to the Chorale’s community outreach program, BRIDGES, and a guest appearance by the Handel and Haydn Society’s Youth Chorus of Sopranos and Altos.

A bit of a hodgepodge? Yes. But nearly everything held together so well – or was sung with such zest and sensitivity – that one never minded.

Indeed, the evening showcased the Chorale’s rich blend and warm ensemble tone to fine effect.

The “Hodie” from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols opened the proceedings with a lushly stereophonic gesture, sung while the choir ringed Old South’s sanctuary. The group’s noble sonorities and close attention to dynamic shape brought a nimbus-like shimmer to James MacMillan’s antiphon “O Radiant Dawn.”

Harold Darke’s enchanting “In the bleak midwinter” and Will Todd’s “My Lord has come” were burnished and effulgent. So was Kim André Arnesen’s Rutter-esque, largely homorhythmic setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb”; in it, the Chorale’s low voices sang with conspicuously robust resonance.

The gently rolling figures of Philip WJ Stopford’s “Lully, lulla, lullay” and Catherine Backer’s pure, floating solos in Stephen Paulus’ haunting adaptation of “Silent Night” were among the night’s other highlights.

H&H’s Youth Chorus and conductor Alyson Greer Espinosa had the floor to themselves for the program’s central set and delivered vibrant accounts of their three selections.

Stephen Hatfield’s a capella reworking of “The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy” lacked nothing for bright energy, rhythmic agility, color, and diction – especially in its contrapuntal sections, which spoke with remarkable clarity.

The Chorus executed the pliable melodic lines of R. Murray Schafer’s “Snowforms,” a setting of nine Inuit words referencing snow, with bracing intensity. Here, the music’s various gestures – among them its play with the sounds of consonants, aleatoric iterations of lyrics, and vivid text paintings (swooping glissandos for “drifting snow,” tight rhythmic figures for “snow beaten down,” etc.) – brought out a performance that was technically compelling, musically assured, and expressively potent.

Their pert, exuberant reading of Craig Courtney’s arrangement of “I’ll Fly Away” also featured a characterful rendition of its honkey-tonk-esque keyboard accompaniment by Michael Becker.

Filling out the night were the Chorale singing Hywel Davies’ “What sweeter music” and the joint vocal forces in a lithe “Hallelujah” Chorus.

Prior to the latter came an offbeat setting called “Hope for Resolution.” It merged the ancient hymn “Of the Father’s love begotten” with an African refrain anticipating God’s protection and justice, a juxtaposition that never felt perfectly at ease, musically. But the performance, which featured the Youth Chorus and Chorale joined by percussionist Robert Schulz’s vigorous djembe playing, wanted nothing for spirit and good cheer.

Neither did the full complement’s lusty encore of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Organist Justin Thomas Blackwell provided rich-toned accompaniments throughout the evening. He was joined on the “Hallelujah” Chorus and the night’s three carols—“O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Ding, Dong, Merrily on High,” and “Hark! The Herald-Angels Sing”—by Schulz and the Majestic Brass.

The latter group also split duties with Blackwell playing pre-concert medleys of Christmas tunes and got a winning, if too brief, moment in the concert proper, delivering a warmly shaped arrangement of “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol.”

The program will be repeated 4 p.m. Saturday at Old South Church. bbcboston.org; 617-648-3885

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