Christmas, Then and Now with Bay Choral Guild

As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of the Bay Choral Guild.  This evening my wife and I had the pleasure of hearing them perform at the Campbell United Methodist Church under the direction of Artistic Director Sanford Dole.  This evening’s program was a selection of Christmas music, much of it drawn from early traditions as far back as the 13th Century.

If you have not taken the opportunity to hear Bay Choral Guild, this program is one you should not miss.  Not only is the program filled with excellent music, I have a sense that this group has really moves to a new level in their performances.  Director Sanford Dole usually assembles programs of music that are challenging and unusual, and this concert was no exception, but this time I sensed a deeper confidence among the performers.  Except for two pieces that were women- only and men-only, the group was often arranged not by section, but with parts mixed.  This creates a better blend, but it also requires a lot of discipline and confidence on the part of the singers.

Time and space does not allow sufficient time to review each piece, but I will try to hit some of the highlights for me.  The 15th Century arrangement of “There Is No Rose” was beautifully performed and carried a great deal of emotional content.  A “Nöel” by Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-1515) sounded very together and lively.  Delightful.  The following piece, and “Ave Maria” by Thomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was also beautifully performed with strong sensitivity.

“Three Carols” by Steve Martland featured some harmonies that were quite challenging, but carried off very well.

Another highlight was “Today the Virgin” by John Tavner (1944- ).  Tavner converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in his youth and this piece was informed by that vocal tradition. I enjoyed hearing the isan-chant style in the verses.  Tavner also loves open fifths, which can be difficult to sing, but are wonderful to hear when performed well.  My review of BCG last spring mentioned an outstanding performance of another Tavner piece, his “Funeral Ikos.”  In my view the Bay Choral Guild is an able interpreter of Tavner’s work and I would love to see them perform more music by this composer.

For me though, my favorite piece of the evening was “O magnum mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen.  The choir performed this with excellent control and dynamic sensitivity.  The end result was nothing less than sublime.

The last two pieces, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Deck the Hall”, both arranged by Ken Malucelli, were both spirited and very emotionally warm; an excellent coda to the evening.

Bay Choral Guild will be performing over this weekend, Saturday (11 December) at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and on Sunday (12 December) at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.

For more information about Bay Choral Guild and to make a donation (and you should), visit their web site at baychoralguild.org.


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