While you may have to find your own chestnuts to roast this Christmas season, be assured that you will have ample access to Yuletide carols being sung by a choir. They may not come within the resonant interior of a church, but some fine vocal ensembles are presenting performances via video.
One is the Singers, a chamber choir that arose 17 years ago from the disbanded and much decorated Dale Warland Singers. Led by Matthew Culloton, it has continued that group’s mission of giving rich voice to contemporary choral compositions.
Its most popular concerts come at Christmas, bearing the title “What Sweeter Music,” after a soothing song from the pen of John Rutter. This year the group is offering an hour-plus video anthology of past successes, their beautifully blended harmonies providing comfort and joy to pandemic-pummeled spirits.
The program bounces between the suitably sacred-sounding Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul and the acoustically acute Wayzata Community Church. Multiple cameras sweep through the approximately 40-member choir, balancing close-ups and big-picture perspective, sometimes splitting the screen with soloists or conductor Culloton.
While a handful of pieces are hampered by audio and video being a hair’s breadth out of sync, it’s a joy to experience the clustering of voices that COVID has forbidden. The Singers sound splendid throughout this patchwork concert, bringing warmth and beauty to places where I didn’t expect to find it.
For example, Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” commonly comes courtesy of an English male choir with many a boy soprano. To hear it performed by 20 women let me reconsider the work in a far more mellifluous light, all rough edges buffed away by a velvety delivery.
Similarly, Stephen Paulus’ “Three Nativity Carols” can be jarring to an ear accustomed to conventional takes on tunes like “The Holly and the Ivy,” which Paulus reimagined with a quite different melody. But the Singers make that and the other two carols exhilarating, thanks in part to the muscular oboe of Merilee Klemp and Min Kim’s gently invigorating harp.
“The Holly and the Ivy” actually appears twice on the program — Culloton’s own version closes the concert — as does Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” in two decidedly different guises. Paulus’ arrangement of that carol provides an opportunity for the concert’s loveliest solo when Hannah Armstrong’s incandescent soprano voice soars. Later, its familiar melody receives tender care from baritone Bruce Broquist at the conclusion of Daniel Kantor’s “Night of Silence,” arranged by Twin Cities-based composer Jocelyn Hagen.
After a touching paean to fatherhood — “Joseph” by Timothy Takach (who happens to be Hagen’s husband) — the climax of the concert is an exceptional interpretation of Morten Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium.” This breathtaking piece is consummate sonic salve, delivered here with such a yearning, soulful spirit that I dare not hope to hear anything else quite so moving this season.
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