This afternoon at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) presented the final program for 2015. This was prepared by Sanford Dole and featured the choir of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, where Dole is Music Director. The selections were divided relatively evenly between music for Advent and music for Christmas.
The Advent portion began with Dole’s own arrangements of three Advent hymns. This involved some sumptuously rich harmonic textures, enhanced by modulations that would never be found in any conventional hymnal. He then moved on to settings of the seven “O” antiphons, each of which addresses Jesus through a different descriptor, either literal (as in “root of Jesse”) or metaphorical (as in “radiant dawn”). Each antiphon was set by a different contemporary composer (including Dole), giving each of them its own distinctive stamp.
The Christmas portion began with three motets by leading Renaissance composers, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (Dutch), Tomás Luis de Victoria (Spanish), and Orlande de Lassus (Franco-Flemish). This was followed by the suite Seven Joys of Christmas, arrangements by Kirke Mechem of traditional carols from England, France, Germany, Burgundy, Japan, and Spain. (England both began and concluded the collection.) Thus, while the Advent antiphons were characterized by different approaches to composition, the Christmas carols were unified by a single arranger.
All this made for an impressively well-conceived program. Unfortunately, the standards of execution never quite rose to the level of disciplined invention behind that program. Most evident were problems of pitch and a sense of struggle behind efforts to keep up with the plethora of nonstandard harmonic progressions. However, there were also weaknesses in the vocal quality of some of the soloists; and, while Dole has a reputation as an attentive choral conductor, there were still occasional (but noticeable) problems of balance.
As readers of this site are likely to know by now, Dole is an excellent choral conductor working with a variety of ensembles in the interest of an impressively broad scope of repertoire. Performances of his Bay Choral Guild at St. Gregory of Nyssa have been impressive, whether he is working with brand-new compositions or traditional ones. He knows how to build a repertoire around the skills of his vocalists (as opposed to Al Carmines at the Judson Memorial Church off of Washington Square Park in New York, who knew the tessitura of every one of his vocalists and made it a point to force each of them to go way beyond those boundaries). Thus, while the possibility that these particular singers were not up to the task is certainly a hypothesis, some other explanation may be more viable.
One possibility is that the acoustics of Old Saint Mary’s are a far cry from those of St. Gregory of Nyssa. The latter is a particularly conducive space for listeners in the audience; and, in all likelihood, the space is just as amenable to the needs of the choristers on their risers. On the other hand I have encountered performers who have claimed that it was often difficult for them to listen to each other while playing or singing in Old Saint Mary’s. Effective preparation thus amounted to internalizing everything as much as possible and then hoping for the best. This may be why Dole’s choir managed much better during their last visit in March for Holy Week than they did this afternoon: the Holy Week repertoire was more conducive to such internalization.
St. Gregory of Nyssa may be more remote (at the foot of Potrero Hill); but it is definitely a space that lends itself to music-making far more generously than Old Saint Mary’s.